Unsafe, illegal schools will be shut down under new Government powers, the Department for Education (DfE) has announced.
The DfE said that its work on closing unsafe independent schools until now had been “slow”.
Under the new powers, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi would be able to suspend registration of an independent school where there were “serious safeguarding failings which pose a risk of harm to students”.
The DfE said this would enable “rapid action” against unsafe illegal schools, with suspension enforced through a new criminal offence where the school’s proprietor would be held responsible if they kept the school open before it was registered.
Ofsted’s powers to investigate illegal schools would also be boosted, so that the inspectorate could support criminal prosecution in the case of illegal unregistered full-time schools.
Reforms announced following a consultation on the issue will mean that all schools for school-age pupils open for 18 hours a week or more at least partly during school hours will need to register.
Four in 10 respondents to the consultation – 42% – expressed concern about pupils at unregistered schools receiving a narrow religious curriculum and 72% said all schools should be registered because education should be regulated and schools accountable.
The consultation response said that while certain faith groups, such as those of Charedi Jewish faith, “may be disproportionately affected by the proposals, the benefit it brings to children’s quality of education, and in providing oversight of safeguarding through the regulated activity is of greaterimportance”.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said: “I strongly welcome the proposals set out by the Department for Education today, for which I’ve been calling for several years.
“Many thousands of children are currently being taught in unsuitable and unsafe illegal schools, which put their wellbeing at risk and deny them a proper education.
“These important changes will make it easier for Ofsted to prevent such places from operating, so we can be sure all children are safe and getting the good education they deserve.
“I look forward to seeing more detail of how our powers to investigate illegal schools will be strengthened, and hope to see this legislation put forward in the Queen’s Speech next week.”
Schools Minister Baroness Barran said: “For too long, some children have been able to fall through gaps in the system, spending most or all of their time during the day in settings that neither meet the required standards of safeguarding or quality of education.
“We will now move forward with our strengthened requirements for settings to register as schools and abide by the Independent School Standards, as well as enhanced powers for Ofsted to investigate where wrongdoing is suspected.
“Providers of these types of settings should be on notice – we will not stand by while they shirk their responsibilities to provide all children with a high quality education, in an environment where they feel safe, valued and looked after.”
Schools Minister Robin Walker said: “The best place for a child to learn is in the classroom with inspirational teachers, and we know that the higher a child’s achievement, the higher their school attendance is likely to have been.
“That’s why increasing attendance is at the heart of our plans to make sure every child gets the best possible education, no matter where in the country they live.”