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Ofsted Chief Inspector demands new powers to tackle illegal religious schools

Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman

‘Weaknesses in current legislation’ are enabling illegal religious schools to stay open and ‘avoid proper scrutiny’ throughout England, according to Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman. Whilst Ofsted continues to investigate schools suspected as operating illegally, many of which teach nothing but ‘religious texts full-time’, Spielman says that inspectors need more powers in order to ‘protect the children who attend these places’. Humanists UK, which has long campaigned on behalf of the children trapped inside unregistered ‘faith’ schools, has joined Ofsted in calling on the Government to ensure that both Ofsted and relevant local authorities have all the powers they need to tackle the problem.

Figures published in the Sunday Times this weekend reveal that Ofsted inspectors have identified 286 suspected unregistered schools across England over the past 18 months, where as many as 6,000 pupils are thought to be being taught. However, just 116 of the 286 settings have been inspected in that time, and warning notices have only been issued to 36. None of the schools recommended for prosecution by Ofsted have come to court.

Having met with Amanda Spielman alongside a group of former pupils of illegal religious schools earlier this year, Humanists UK wrote to the Minister of State for Vulnerable Children Edward Timpson MP to raise concerns about gaps in the current legal framework that are preventing effective action against such schools. Citing ‘a lack of regulation around supplementary religious schools and a lack of regulation around homeschooling’ as the two principal barriers to making progress, the letter stressed that ‘unregistered schooling is unquestionably the area of the education system that fails children more acutely than any other, and reform is needed urgently’. Humanists UK also made similar recommendations in its response to a consultation on unregistered schools held recently by Hackney Council, a local authority in which more than 1,000 boys are known to be taught illegally in strictly Orthodox Charedi Jewish schools.

Last year the Local Government Association also called for greater powers to tackle illegal religious schools, specifically in relation to investigating the legitimacy of home education arrangements. And prior to being replaced as Ofsted Chief Inspector this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote to the Secretary of State for Education three times regarding the action needed to deal with such settings.

Humanists UK Education Campaigner Jay Harman commented, ‘It has taken years of dedicated campaigning by Humanists UK, alongside some incredibly courageous former pupils of illegal religious schools, to get this issue onto the agenda. And now that both Ofsted and the relevant local authorities are finally willing to act, they find a Government unwilling to give them the powers they need to protect these children.

‘The Government must give Amanda Spielman’s comments the attention they deserve, and legislate as soon as possible so that those responsible for keeping children safe in this country can do their jobs. The pupils trapped within unregistered faith schools are not only being denied an education, they are being denied a childhood, and every single day that goes by without action is a tragedy and a scandal. We will continue to highlight their experiences and campaign for change, but until the Government starts taking this issue seriously, there will be little hope for these children.’


For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman on or 07970 393 680.

Read Humanists UK’s news item ‘Local Government Association calls for greater powers to tackle illegal religious schools’:

Read the Humanists UK’s news item ‘Humanists UK welcome Ofsted warning on children at risk in “faith” schools but warns problems are far more widespread’:

Read the Humanists UK’s previous news item ‘Children in illegal religious schools being failed, says Humanists UK’:

Read the Humanists UK’s full response to Hackney’s inquiry:

Read the Humanists UK’s previous news item ‘Humanists UK reveals illegal Jewish school allowed to stay open for years despite repeated Ofsted warnings’:

Read the Humanists UK ’s previous news item ‘Humanists UK exposé: unregistered “faith” schools enjoying charitable status despite operating illegaly’:

Read more about the Humanists UK ’s work on ‘faith’ schools:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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