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Alarm as illegal religious schools continue to operate during lockdown

Unregistered religious schools are continuing to operate as normal during lockdown, sparking serious concerns about the health and safety of pupils as well as the broader community.

Humanists UK has led the campaign against illegal, unregistered schools for many years  and was responsible for bringing the issue to public attention. It has received several reports from community insiders and local residents that unregistered Charedi Jewish schools are continuing to teach packed classes at various settings in the Stamford Hill area of Hackney, East London. They also say the schools are showing no regard for Covid safety measures such as reducing pupil numbers, social distancing, or wearing face masks.

Ofsted estimates that around 6,000 children are currently receiving their education in illegal or unregistered schools. They often operate in cramped, unhygienic conditions, where there is an appalling lack of safeguarding. When they have a religious character, the curriculum is usually narrow, focused on learning religious scripture (sometimes including extreme misogynistic and homophobic content) to the exclusion of other basic subjects such as English, Maths, and Science. Former pupils of these schools have described leaving unable to speak English and with the education level of the average nine or ten-year-old. However, legal loopholes – including one which allows settings that teach a curriculum which is not broad enough to be suitable for primary or secondary aged children to claim they are not schools even when they provide all or most of their pupils’ education – mean authorities such as Ofsted and the DfE are currently powerless to shut them down.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:

‘We have been contacted by a number of Hackney residents saying that unregistered religious schools have been operating with impunity throughout the pandemic – even now.

‘Given the record of these settings on pupil safeguarding and health and safety, it is perhaps not particularly surprising that they are prepared to put the wellbeing of children, as well as the wider community, at serious risk in order to continue pursuing their narrow religious agenda. However, it provides yet another reason why the Government must take swift and decisive action to close the legal loopholes that have allowed this situation to happen and shut these settings for good.’

One reason unregistered Charedi schools have been able to get away with teaching full to capacity classes is by claiming to provide part-time provision for pupils who are primarily home-educated. Part-time yeshivas – along with religious tuition centres and out of school clubs, such as Muslim madrassas and Sunday schools – are legally able to teach vulnerable children, as well as those whose parents are classed as key workers during the lockdown.

Since the ‘vulnerable’ category includes children who ‘may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study)’ and the Charedi community largely forbids the use of computers and the Internet, particularly amongst children, this means that the majority of Charedi children meet this definition (although it also undermines the notion that they are primarily home-educated even in normal times). Because of this, both unregistered and registered Charedi schools are reportedly operating at 90-100% of capacity. As there is no register of home-educated children and no compulsory oversight of out of school settings offering part-time provision, it is enormously difficult, verging on impossible, for authorities to address breaches of public health and safety in unregistered settings or check if they are operating full time illegally.

The UK Government recently consulted on tightening the law on illegal and unregistered schools, including by widening the range of settings that must register as a school. But the consultation was delayed by the pandemic. Humanists UK and others – including Ofsted – have repeatedly raised concerns about these delays which mean thousands of children remain at risk.

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham at ruth@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 0772 511 0860.

Read our most recent article on Ofsted Chief Inspector saying there is ‘no room for complacency or inaction’ on illegal schools.

Read our article on the Education Select Committee Chair supporting home education register that will help crackdown on illegal schools.

Read our article on Government relaunching consultation on tightening law on illegal schools.

Read our full illegal schools consultation response.

Read our article on lack of engagement in safeguarding from unregistered Jewish schools in Hackney.

Read more about our work on illegal schools.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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