Government inaction around unregistered schools exposed

April 6, 2016

Inclusive-schools-logo-version-3-300x202Shocking new findings have revealed that unregistered ultra-Orthodox schools in Hackney, North London, have been operating for many years with the knowledge of a range of government agencies. New findings from Accord Coalition member group, the British Humanist Association, which have been reported over the last week by the BBC’s Newsnight programme and The Independent, include:

  • that between 12 and 20 unregistered ultra-Orthodox schools are believed to be operate in Hackney
  • some of the schools are registered as charities with the Charity Commission, so are able to benefit from tax breaks
  • an analysis of government records suggest more that 1,100 children may be attending the schools
  • notes from a 2010 meeting between the company contracted to provide all of the local council’s education services and the Department for Education show that both bodies were aware of local unregistered schools
  • notes from 2010 show that local Jewish state schools had been asked to notify the company when a child left to attend an illegal school, but that these records were destroyed on request of the state schools

All independent schools in England and Wales are required to register with their respective Department for Education. Operating as an unregistered school is a criminal offense. Pupils at the unregistered Hackney schools are believed to study only religious texts, so preventing them obtaining qualifications and so massively inhibiting their ability to integrate and their future education and employment opportunities.

Writing in The Independent in response to these revelations, Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, commented:

Such schools do a major disservice to the children who attend them by denying them a rounded education … The findings reveal three major issues in the Government’s response. First, why is it not insisting that the rules that apply to most children apply to all children? Second, why is it not concerned about the best interests of the children at these illegal schools? The third question is much broader and goes to the heart of many assumptions in our education system, which are too often left unchallenged: why do we allow segregation along religious lines in schools in the first place?

 ‘How can we educate children to value those who are different to themselves if we separate them from each other and give them a terrible message of  “us and them” every time they enter the school gate? As a rabbi I applaud those engaged in Jewish education, but as a rabbi I also condemn those who blinker children’s horizons and isolate them from wider society.

The Hackney schools have unsettling echoes with the Birmingham schools scandal, where a group of non-faith schools thought it was permissible to cater for only those of a specific background and to reinforce that identity to the exclusion of others. As in Hackney, the Birmingham schools went unchallenged for many years out of a misguided fear of causing offence.

In a sign that authorities have slowly begun taking unregistered schools more seriously, Ofsted wrote to the Secretary of State for Education in the autumn of 2015 to highlight its concern about such schools and to provide an update of recent action taken. As the latest findings demonstrate however, prevarication and a failure to learn from past mistakes by public bodies and officials is continuing to fail the interests of many young people.

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