A significant number of unregistered, illegal schools are operating through England, many of which are religious. Such settings serve a variety of different religious communities, including Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities – all of which in some respect tend to be fundamentalist, extreme, or isolationist in their outlook. It is for this reason that these communities see illegal schools as preferable to registered ones, which face inspection and must meet a variety of minimum standards.
Humanists UK leads the national campaign for action on unregistered religious schools and works closely with former pupils of such settings, as well as current members of closed religious communities, to highlight their experiences and provide evidence to the authorities.
Experience of pupils in unregistered schools
The education provided in many unregistered religious schools is known to be narrow in its scope, predominantly scriptural in its content, and deeply conservative, intolerant, and extreme in its outlook. In a series of advice notes to the Secretary of State for Education in 2015 and 2016, former Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw detailed the findings of inspectors in a number of unregistered Muslim settings, including ‘a narrow Islamic-focused curriculum’, ‘inappropriate books and other texts including misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material’, and ‘children and young people… at significant risk of harm and indoctrination’.
Similarly, Ofsted reports published by Humanists UK in 2016 exposed the situation within illegal Charedi schools, revealing that the curriculum ‘encourages cultural and ethnic insularity’ and prevents pupils from ‘developing a wider, deeper understanding of different faiths, communities, cultures and lifestyles, including those of England.’ Former pupils report to us that they only study the Talmud and the Torah, often for fourteen hours a day, six days a week, and leave education as adults unable to speak any English, in spite of sometimes being third or fourth generation Londoners. They report having frequently experienced physical abuse by staff and being aware of child sexual exploitation as well.
Humanists UK has been responsible for revealing the appalling plight of children trapped within illegal schools, both through our blogging and whistleblowing website Faith Schoolers Anonymous, and through various exposés with Newsnight, BBC News at Six/Ten, BBC London News, Victoria Derbyshire, the Independent, and the Evening Standard, among others.
Currently, relevant authorities like Ofsted and local councils do not have sufficient powers to investigate and close unregistered schools. This is because some illegal schools argue that by only providing religious instruction, they do not meet the definition of an independent school, and so do not have to register as such. Rather, the illegal schools claim that they are supplementary or out-of-school settings (meaning that Ofsted does not have the power to inspect them), and the pupils attending them receive their main education at home. Presently, there is no requirement for home-schooled pupils to be registered with the authorities. We first became aware of this loophole in the law in 2015, not long after the schools started using it. In 2018, the Department for Education publicly acknowledged it for the first time.
Calls for reform
We therefore campaign for the introduction of the legal provisions necessary to take meaningful action against such schools. As part of this we call for robust regulation of out-of-school settings or part-time schools (e.g. madrassas and yeshivas), many of which are known to operate covertly as full-time illegal schools.
Humanists UK has been public in calling for such reforms for some time. In 2016, for instance, we called for the regulation of out-of-school settings in response to a consultation, launched as part of the Government’s Counter Extremism Strategy. Those proposals were subsequently dropped following Church of England and Catholic Church lobbying – due to unfounded concerns about regulation of Sunday schools. The consulted-on proposals were explicitly constructed to only focus on settings that have individual pupils for a significant number of hours each week, which would generally exclude Sunday schools. Humanists UK became aware of the churches’ influence in summer 2017 and then that December, working with the Liberal Democrat front bench, got the Archbishop of Canterbury to admit he personally lobbied the Prime Minister to drop the proposals.
And in a letter to the then Minister of State for Vulnerable Children Edward Timpson MP in 2017, we drew attention to the gaps in the current legal framework that are preventing effective action against such schools.
What we’ve been doing
Our work leading the campaign against illegal, unregistered religious schools in the UK includes:
- Launching the whistleblowing and blogging website Faith Schoolers Anonymous, along with former pupils of illegal schools, and repeatedly getting the issue in the media since 2014.
- A 2016 exposé aired on Newsnight revealing that a number of illegal religious schools are nonetheless registered as charities with educational purposes, accruing all the benefits that charity status affords
- Prompting the creation of Ofsted’s unregistered schools team, and being the first external group to meet with that team, following a series of exposés and reports on unregistered schools.
- Holding the first meeting between Ofsted, the DfE, and former pupils of illegal religious schools, who provided valuable evidence on the experience of children within such settings.
- Securing recommendations in the 2016 Casey Review on integration for action on ‘segregated, supplementary and unregistered, illegal faith schools’, in line with evidence we submitted to the review.
- Repeatedly calling on the Government to address gaps in the law that prevent illegal schools from being shut down and prevent the children within them from receiving their right to an education.
- Holding a meeting in parliament for MPs/peers to hear about the experience of a former illegal school pupils.
- Prompting a consultation on unregistered schools (through our media work) 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. The subsequent report echoed all of Humanists UK’s recommendations.
- Working with parliamentarians to repeatedly raise the matter in Parliament, for example through the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group and with the Labour and Liberal Democrat front-benches.
- Briefing the House of Commons Education Select Committee on unregistered schools and calling for a full parliamentary inquiry
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on faith schools and education. We’ve not yet raised her salary for 2019 – you can help us do so by donating at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.