Ofsted warns over children at risk of 'indoctrination' in illegal schools
Thousands more children than previously thought are at risk of "harm and indoctrination" and face dangers from "unsafe" premises in illegal schools, Ofsted's chief inspector warned.
Inspectors have identified 100 suspected unregistered schools across the country since a new investigatory team was set up in January, and Sir Michael Wilshaw said "many more children" than previously thought are hidden from authorities in unregistered schools.
Investigators were "deeply alarmed" by what they found, he said, and warned the "sub-standard education" in many unregistered schools undermined Government efforts to ensure schools promote "British values".
Sir Michael said he was "extremely concerned" about the number of pupils attending these schools, saying they may be at "significant risk of harm and indoctrination".
Inspections have uncovered serious fire hazards, including obstructed exits and inaccessible fire escapes, and schools with unsafe and unhygienic premises.
One case involved the discovery of "chemicals and chemistry equipment in an unlocked food cupboard in a room where children ate their lunch", Sir Michael said.
Staff and volunteers were also found to have not been properly checked or cleared to work with children.
The unregistered schools uncovered so far are only a small proportion of the illegal schools operating across the country, Sir Michael said, with suspected new cases every week.
Last month, inspectors issued seven warning notices to suspected illegal schools in London, Birmingham, Luton, Wolverhampton and Staffordshire - where they found around 350 children on the premises.
In a letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who charged Sir Michael last year with setting up a new Ofsted taskforce to investigate illegal schools and those running them, he said: "The evidence that (inspectors) have gathered so far during this short period firmly reinforces my belief that there are many more children hidden away from the view of the authorities in unregistered schools across the country than previously thought."
And there is a "clear link" between the growth of unregistered schools and the steep rise in children being home-educated in England in recent years.
Sir Michael said those operating unregistered schools are "unscrupulously" using the freedoms parents have to educate their children at home as a cover for their activities, " exploiting weaknesses" in the current legislation to operate on the cusp of the law.
He said: "In doing so, many are providing a sub-standard education, placing children at risk and undermining the Government's efforts to ensure that all schools are promoting British values, including tolerance and respect for others."
He called on local authorities to show vigilance and share intelligence with agencies including Ofsted, so unregistered schools can be quickly identified and investigated, and has asked inspectors to contact councils after an inspection of an unsafe or unsuitable setting.
Independent schools offering full-time education in England must register with the DfE and accept inspection by Ofsted.
They are required to meet standards on education quality; the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of students; welfare, health and safety; suitability of staff, premises and accommodation; and leadership and management of the school.
Failure to register a school attracts a maximum six-month jail sentence and £5,000 fine.
The Department for Education said it had given new resources to Ofsted to investigate unregistered schools and support prosecutions, and is considering responses to a consultation on measures to protect children in out-of-schools settings that offer intensive education.
A spokesman said: " We are taking steps to ensure the system is as robust as it can be when it comes to protecting young people, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of parents to determine how and where to educate their children."
But s hadow education secretary Lucy Powell said the Government had been "asleep at the wheel" by allowing "extremely worrying and potentially dangerous practices" to develop in schools.
Attacking the Tories' education policy for lacking "robust local oversight" to spot and tackle serious problems early on, she said: " We urgently need the Government to take tough action and instil a robust system of local oversight and accountability of all local schooling, regardless of type, so that communities can work together to improve standards and stop children from ending up in harm's way."
The NSPCC said parents could not be certain illegal schools were able to ensure their children's safety.
A spokesman said: " When picking these institutions, some parents might not know that such 'schools' are unregistered and employees haven't had the proper background checks or safeguarding training, and are unaware of the risks these pose to their children.
"It's vital that every individual who works with children passes these checks to help keep every child safe."
The British Humanist Association said it has launched a whistleblowing service for former and current pupils who have experienced indoctrination, misinformation, discrimination, neglect, and abuse in their schools.
Policy director Pavan Dhaliwal said: "At long last we hope that the Government will be taking comprehensive and swift action to help those who have been denied their basic right to an education."