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Humanist peers press Government for action on illegal schools

Humanist members from across the House of Lords have today pressed the UK Government to say when it will close illegal religious schools. A number of such schools are operating in England by exploiting loopholes in the law. Humanists UK, which leads the national campaign for their closure, has welcomed the comments. It said the Government ‘must now stop dragging its feet’ and take immediate steps to protect the thousands of children at risk in these settings.

Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) spoke in the debate in the Lords chamber. APPHG member Lord Soley (Labour) asked what plans the Government has to create a register of home-educated children. At present, there is no record of all the pupils being educated outside of a school setting. This means that the Government has no idea how many children do not attend school. It also allows illegal schools to use home education as a cover for their activities. Education Minister Baroness Berridge told him that it is ‘committed to a form of registration of children not in school’. She said further details would be published ‘in the coming months’.

Viscount Ridley (Conservative) said the ‘villains’ who run illegal schools were ‘unlikely to take note’ of a recently introduced voluntary code of practice for out-of-school settings. He asked what steps the Government is taking ‘to protect children in these settings from threats such as unsafe conditions and religious extremism’. Baroness Berridge replied that in addition to the code of practice – which out-of-school settings are not legally required to follow – many of these settings are charities. This means they are regulated by the Charity Commission. But in 2016 Humanists UK complained to the Charity Commission about eight charities suspected of operating as illegal faith schools. And in May it revealed that the schools are all still operating and the investigation still isn’t done. This casts doubt on the view that the Commission will help protect children.

Baroness Whittaker (Labour) said some pupils educated outside of schools are in ‘real trouble’. She highlighted the ‘narrow curriculum’ and ‘unsafe’ and ‘unhygienic’ conditions. Baroness Berridge said she was ‘correct’ and that the Government ‘was aware of this issue’. She said that in the past five years, Ofsted had carried out 494 inspections of suspected illegal schools. It has issued 106 warning notices and closed 91 schools.  But legal loopholes mean Ofsted don’t have the power to investigate many suspected illegal schools. It is therefore likely that this number is just the tip of the iceberg.

Baroness Burt (Liberal Democrats) talked about Ofsted’s view that ‘sham home education [is] being used as a cover for illegal schools promoting extreme radical views and extreme methods’. She asked again if there was ‘a schedule of progress’ in this area.

Baroness Meacher also spoke against illegal schools. She asked whether any work was being done to ‘assess the extent to which fundamentalist religious parents… are preventing their children receiving appropriate education and, indeed, teaching in English.’ Baroness Berridge said ‘every parent, regardless of their religious persuasion… has a duty to ensure their child is receiving suitable education’.

Labour’s education spokesperson Lord Watson said it was ‘a scandal that an accurate figure of school-aged children not being educated in school is not available’. He said a compulsory register of home-educated children was important ‘as a safeguarding measure’. He asked whether the Government would support a private members’ bill on the issue if it did not intend to bring forward its own legislation. The last such bill was tabled by Lord Soley in 2017 and this was when the Government first committed to take action on the issue.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:

‘There is strong, cross-party support for the creation of a home education register and regulations to shut on illegal schools. The Government says it is committed to taking action in this area. But, yet again, has refused to say exactly when it will.

‘We first highlighted the problem of illegal schools in 2014. A child entering secondary school then will now have left. They would have been denied a proper education because of Government inaction. The Government must stop dragging its feet and take immediate steps to protect the thousands of children at risk in these settings.’

Notes:

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

Watch the House of Lords debate (discussion starts at 12:28:35).

Read our most recent article on the Charity Commission’s failure to take action on charities operating suspected illegal schools five years after being alerted to them.

Read our 2016 investigation into illegal schools operating as charities.

Read our article on Ofsted telling the Education Select Committee that ‘sham home education’ being used as a cover for illegal schools.

Read our article about illegal schools operating during lockdown.

Read more about our work on illegal schools.

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