Unregistered Schools

Part 4 of the Schools Bill would have introduced much more regulation of independent educational institutions and brought many more establishments within scope. However, in early December 2022 the government said it was not going forward with the Schools Bill. My page on the Schools Bill is here.

Independent Schools Regulation

Schools only have to register if they provide full time education for children of compulsory school age to 5 or more pupils or 1 or more with an EHCP. Read more here.

There is no legal definition of full time in the independent sector although the government has given 18 hours a week as a guide. Much of the investigation of whether a school is full time (and therefore subject to registration and inspection) hinges on the timetable for an individual child, and not on how many hours the school is open.

If the education provided does not include literacy and numeracy but eg is purely religious instruction, then the institution does not have to register as an independent school. The government consulted about this in 2020 and subsequently introduced provisions to amend the law in Part 4 of the Schools Bill. These proposals for regulating independent education institutions will not go forward now the Schools Bill has been dropped.

Full time independent schools must comply with regulations covering the welfare health and safety of pupils, breadth of curriculum, quality of educational provision, suitability of teaching staff and proprietors, appropriate premises, and record-keeping. Independent schools are inspected either by Ofsted or by other inspectorates approved by the Secretary of State. Since September 2014, independent schools have also been required to actively promote “fundamental British values” and ensure that there is political balance in teaching and other activities.

Illegal Schools

Illegal schools are not the same as unregistered schools because not all establishments have to register.

DfE has a page about regulating independent schools which can be found here. It includes links to Prosecuting Unregistered Independent Schools and Unregistered Schools and Out of School Settings.

Ofsted publishes information on unregistered schools twice a year. As of May 2023 Ofsted has inspected 534 settings. Inspectors issue a warning notice when they consider a setting to be operating as an illegal school. 146 warning notices have been issued. The latest spreadsheet shows that from 2016 to 2023 Ofsted has also identified 150 settings where home educated children attend. There has been a total of 6 prosecutions.

In its Annual Report published in November 2023 Ofsted said “It is a criminal offence to run an unregistered school in England. Since 2016, when the unregistered schools team in Ofsted was set up, we have carried out over 1,190 investigations of nearly 1,120 suspected unregistered schools. This has resulted in around 770 inspections, 180 warning notices. This year, we opened 190 investigations into suspected illegal schools, conducted 110 inspections, and issued 25 warning notices to settings that appeared to be breaking the law.”

Reference to “Ofsted inspections” of illegal schools is quite confusing. It can refer EITHER to an investigation of how many hours a child is being taught, OR to pre-registration inspections where a school is supposedly in the process of registering even though it is already operating. It might even be used to refer to registered schools which repeatedly fail inspections where people believe they should be shut down.

10 institutions were under investigation on suspicion of operating an unregistered independent school at the end of 2022. Schools successfully prosecuted to date include Aysha Tuition Centre Sheffield; Rabia School Luton; Freiston Hall, Lincolnshire; Ambassadors High School, Streatham; Al-Istiqamah Learning Centre, Southall

Illegal schools are schools which meet the criteria for registering as independent schools but where the proprietors have opted NOT to register. If they weren’t closed down they would have to make big changes as well as teaching a broader syllabus.

Local councils have no power in law to inspect registers or check individual pupils’ timetables if the school won’t co-operate. The only body which can do this is Ofsted under section 97 powers. This has not prevented Ofsted from blaming councils in the past for not doing enough. Historically the Government was reluctant to prosecute or to shut schools down, preferring instead for schools to be supported through the registration process. At the end of 2015 the Government gave Ofsted the go ahead to investigate and collect evidence against unregistered independent schools and to liaise with the Crown Prosecution Service.

Regulating Part Time Schools

Part 4 of The Education and Skills Act 2008 covers regulation of part-time schools (12.5 hours or 15 hours) in the same way as full-time schools but it only has “prospective” status and successive governments have opted NOT to bring these provisions into force.