A planned crackdown on unsafe or unregulated independent schools is expected to be included in next week’s Queen’s speech, including the threat of jail sentences and unlimited fines for proprietors who ignore safeguarding concerns.
The Department for Education (DfE) said it was ready to submit legislation to give the government and Ofsted wider powers to investigate and close private schools in England, with plans to broaden its definition of a school to force more settings to officially register.
Under the powers, the education secretary would be able to suspend the registration of an independent school where there are “serious safeguarding failings which pose a risk of harm to students”.
The suspension could then be enforced through a new criminal offence that could result in a proprietor being held responsible if their school remains open after suspension.
Diana Barran, the schools minister in the Lords, 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.”
Ofsted would also gain new powers to investigate illegal schools and support criminal prosecutions taken against unregistered full-time schools.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said she “strongly welcomed” the proposals, which she has supported 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,” Spielman said. “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.”
The DfE’s new definition means a setting will need to formally register as a school if it is educating school-age children for 18 hours or more a week and operating for at least part of that time during school hours.
The change closes a loophole that meant settings were only required to register as schools if they taught for 18 hours a week entirely during school hours.
The DfE said: “Although certain faith groups, such as people 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 greater importance.”
Current laws in England allow many settings to avoid registration as schools, while others found to be operating as illegal schools have been able to evade sanctions and remain open.