Apr 14th, 2022
Ofsted Talks hosts talk to Ofsted's Chief Operating Officer, Matthew Coffey, Ofsted illegal schools inspector, Sue Will and Ofsted Policy Officer, Katherine Street about illegal schools and what more Ofsted needs to close them down.
AT – Anna Trethewey
CJ – Chris Jones
MC – Matthew Coffey
SW – Sue Will
KS – Katherine Street
AT: Hello and welcome to this episode of Ofsted talks. This week we're going to talk about illegal schools.
CJ: Yeah, that's right offset has had an illegal schools team since 2016. I'm going to talk to one of our inspectors who has been on that team since the beginning, about what it's like to turn up and knock on the door of these places and what we find.
AT: And later in the podcast, I have a really interesting chat with Catherine from our policy team, who talks more about what new powers we need to get to make those inspections more effective. But first, let's get a bit of history and background from Ofsted’s Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Chief Inspector Matthew Coffey.
MC Hi Anna. Yeah, I'm back to coffee. I'm Ofsted’s Chief Operating Officer. And I'm the deputy chief inspector for Amanda.
AT: That's great. So can you just talk to me a little bit about how and when this issue of illegal schools was first brought to Ofsted attention?
MC: Okay, well, that's a good question. I'm not sure there's a real precise answer because, actually in the legislation there's always been an issue of, an acknowledgement that unregistered schools exist, but pre 2016, we used to wait until the Department for Education would commissioners to go in and do an inspection of a suspected illegal school, but it was in 2016, where the Chief Inspector of the time recognised that there was an increase in those commissions from the Department for Education, and more and more Ofsted was getting intelligence directly that illegal schools were operating that we worked with the Department to set up a team that would really respond to what we saw was a growing notification of unregistered schools and so I think the imprecise answer is 2016. But it's always been an issue prior to that.
AT: Okay, thank you. And we've got a number of settings, haven't we? We've investigated since that time. I've got the number here is 850, which is you know, that significant number really, when you think about it across those years?
MC: Yeah, I do remember back in 2016 where, you know, within the first few months of setting up a relatively small team within Ofsted, to look at this issue. We were we started talking about the tip of the iceberg and within the first few months we had about 56 potential unregistered schools. That were on our case list and more and more kept coming and ever since that time, you know, that there's just a lot of notifications about potential unregistered schools, coming from a lot of very concerned people. So it's really good that people have got their radar tuned into the damage that unregistered schools can do and they want us to do something about it.
AT: Great. That's really useful. We're going to hear a little bit more about that later in the podcast and we when Sue will discuss the process for investigating. And I guess actually, let's go right back to basics a little bit before we dive into more detail. What is an illegal School for the listeners out there?
MC: Yeah, absolutely. And on hopefully the definition of an illegal school is set out in legislation and it talks about if there are more than five children being given a broad education or if one of those children you only have to have one child actually if it's a looked after child or a child on some kind of support plan that would take us into the realm of being an unregistered school. Why I say it's a double edged sword because that definition of a broad education allows some people to kind of wriggle out of the legislative definition by saying actually we're not offering a broad education. We're offering a very, very narrow education and we do find ourselves in in some frustrating legal debates that are actually exposed to us that the legislation is imprecise, actually, it's too broad and we really want it to be a bit more focused to get those people that are kind of surfing on the edge of what's right and what's wrong. And that frustrates us if I'm honest.
AT: Yeah, that's helpful, helpful outline. You've talked about the damage that those schools, why should we be concerned about them?
MC: Oh, listen, in my time in Ofsted, I've been into a good number of these places and really you know, doesn't there's not many things that shocked me, but I have been shocked in unregistered schools. I mean, they are filthy. The ones I've been in that they really are very disorganised. Nobody knows who the staff are. That are teaching these children. Nobody knows because nobody's checked. Nobody's done any of the DBS checking. They could be absolutely anybody and they could be teaching anything. You know, so not to any kind of curriculum that we would understand, you know, stuff that people have just made up and of course, we all know the power of education is that you know, adults generally professionally qualified adults are imparting important information in a structured way to children, you know, that that's all out the window in unregistered schools. They're getting, you know, taught anything and actually in some of these places, parents are paying good money for it as well. I mean, he's just wrong on so many levels.
AT: Yeah, there's absolutely that bit of Would you want this for your own children and I imagine some of the things you've seen, really do question that.
MC: Yeah, and these children you know, they've been taken generally out of some kind of good mainstream education to be educated in a way that the parents are told is the best way to educate children and you know, some of it is with good intent. And don't get me wrong. There's not just this world is just not full of 100% Bad people there are there are some people are trying to do a really good job but they just don't get it right. And we need to you know, hold them to account some people just didn't realise and recognise that they needed to be registered and you know, they, they've been given the opportunity to register and then become you know, very good schools in the future, but I'm afraid that is the exception rather than the norm.
AT: Okay, and I'm going to ask you one of those sort of annoyingly tricky questions now, because I think the answer is we're not quite sure. But do we know how many illegal schools there are and how many children tend to be in them?
MC: Well, we don't; not only is it a tricky question, it's really frustrating question because you'd think that, you know, in 2022, we really should know and particularly layer on COVID and, you know, lots of children that, you know, were forced to be absent from school, but those that didn't come back you know, we just don't know there isn't a register that nationally available so that we can see the number of children that are homeschool educated, and whilst not exclusively do homeschool educated children end up in an unregistered school. It is one way through we've we've clearly identified that through the work that we've done since 2016. Nobody knows. These things, you know, like walking through many of our high streets you see a pop up restaurant or a pop up this so you get these pop up illegal schools. They you know, they really are at the top of chip shops and other places, in guarantees, the one that I referred to where we were very worried about children was in an industrial estate, you know, behind one of those big, you know, metal garage doors, you know, I mean, who wants to be educated in somewhere like that? Nobody knows the answer, I'm afraid but we're working really hard and take every opportunity to say to legislators, you really need to, you know, give us the powers that we need, but you also need to clarify the legislation on what defines a score and ensure that there is a register available so that we know the likely numbers of schools or certainly children that would be vulnerable to being in one of these schools.
AT: And we've heard so when we talk about this sometimes unregistered schools can be referred to as well as illegal schools. So just what's the difference there? Because it can get a bit muddled a counter?
MC: Yeah, I guess it goes back to that definition that I talked about the imprecision of the definition. If somebody really clearly breaks that definition is educating children is giving them a broad education or attempting to and there's more than five children. You know, this is this is an illegal school. There are some schools that are doing you know, very small things that are on top of a mainstream education some alternative provision that is specialist that doesn't need to be registered. So that's an unregistered school rather than an illegal school. So, you know, the clue is really the title of illegal and, and I guess, you know, it does come down to the precision of the legislation. Some people also get it all a little a bit mixed with supplementary schools. And a supplementary school is normally of a faith-based nature that is there to educate children in the tenants of a particular faith. They are out of our purview, but I've got to say you know, there has been occasion where we've been concerned about the creep of the scope of what those supplementary schools are doing. And when a supplementary school starts to, you know, encroach on other educational aspects of a child's life, that's when it starts to creep into being a potential, you know, illegal school.
AT: Yeah. Okay. Thank you just touched on. One aspect I was going to ask about actually so we hear quite a lot about unregistered faith schools. Is it true that, you know, most unregistered schools are faith based or is it a bit more of a mix?
MC: It's not true. Actually, you know, there is a relatively small number of faith based illegal schools about a fifth of all of the settings that we inspect in this world have a faith ethos, and it is a very quick assumption that people will make.
AT: and I guess with that, and with some of the frustrations that you have, you know, this is a really obvious question to ask, but I would imagine you'd be delighted to be able to close this close some of the schools down so why can't we do that?
MC: Yeah, well, I guess it comes back to you know, the legal aspect and what we've done in the team, but I'm sure Sue will talk about this a little bit more. Is we've recognised that it isn't as simple as we'd all like to think and maybe back in 2016. We didn't think it was that simple. Find an unregistered illegal school, issue a notice and close it down. But, you know, the tests that you need to go through in order to achieve that prosecution, which in essence closes it down is a very, very high bar. I think it's true to say a lawyer may well correct me, I think it's true to say that this legislation was designed never really to be, you know, used as a prosecution vehicle. It was really introduced as a deterrent to stop people from doing it in the first place. And we soon realised that when we started to have to go through Crown Prosecution Service tests, so we now our team has been recalibrated to have the inspectors on the frontline but also a team of lawyers that are really versed in, in how to collect the evidence that passes the various legal tests and it's made us better as an organisation. Having said that, whilst the legal challenge to close something down might be difficult. Having a bunch of Ofsted inspectors coming along and issuing with you with a notice to say you're doing wrong. Cease and desist is also a very powerful tool. And we can celebrate a tremendous amount of success in closing those down by non legislative means. So you know, we don't measure our success and how many prosecutions but we managed to get it's how many of these schools that we managed to stop operating.
AT: So that's, that's really useful. And I guess So Katherine is going to talk a bit more detail in the podcast later on around some of the specific asks and things that we think should change in legislation. But you know, just briefly, what's helping to change some of the situation here what's being done?
MC: Yeah, well, I mean, we can; being a civil servant. I understand the wonders of the civil service. I also understand sometimes the frustration of the bureaucracy and I know it's not an easy thing to get new legislation in and to get it changed. But we've been campaigning for a long time to get it changed. And we've been working very, very positively with, with the Department for Education, who are committed to, you know, enacting new legislation that give us powers that we need, and also clarify the definitions in a way that I've already outlined. Some of the powers that would really help us is the ability to seize evidence at the minute we can't, we can only photograph it and that's really frustrating, particularly when you do go somewhere and you find that children are being exposed to educational in inverted commas. material that is not appropriate. We can't take it away. All we can do is to photograph it as part of our evidence bundle, walking away knowing that it's still there and that causes a great deal of frustration. I must also give a really positive shout out in this space to local authorities. Because they you know, I think we've worked very well with local authorities and they understand the damage that unregistered schools can do and so they are very quick to alert as to concerns that they may well have and of course, at their disposal and fingertips they've got a lot of officers of the local authority that are out on the streets, day in day out, you know, collecting refuse or parking or whatever it might be. And we found that, you know, by educating their own staff, they can see where there are unusual places that children are seen going into, you know, like in an industrial estate, and that comes back to them and then they come and talk to us. So that's a really good example of you know, cross governmental, working together for a shared aim and objective.
AT: Matthew, that's a really helpful overview. Thanks ever so much for your time really helpful.
MC: You're very welcome. Take care.
CJ: Really fascinating stuff there from Matthew. I so frustrating that we just don't know how many children are attending these settings. And I agree with what Matthew said in 2022 we really shouldn't know.
AT: Yeah, I agree.
CJ: Next, we're gonna listen to one of my favourite interviews so far in the podcast. It was so interesting to hear firsthand what it's like to go into these places and what we find when we do so let's have a listen to my interview with Sue.
CJ: So I've got with me Sue Will from Ofsted’s, unregistered schools team. So tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
SW: Hi there. As you said, my name is Sue Will I'm the senior HMI in the unregistered schools team. I manage the inspectors who conduct the investigations into unregistered schools up and down the country.
CJ: Excellent. And that's what we're going to talk a bit about the inspections of unregistered schools that we that we carry out now tell me a little bit about how an inspection goes down because presumably we don't give them a day's notice that we're doing a normal school inspection
SW: No, That’s right, absolutely not. So Ofsted receives referrals from a number of different sources about unregistered schools come from all sorts of people, members of the public, the police social services of the schools, and a referral comes in and the staff will start an investigation really into what we know about that provision. What we need to do is to establish whether we have reasonable cause to be able to go in and inspect. So under the legislation Ofsted has powers so enter premises if we reasonably believe that an unregistered school may be in operation. So we all carry all sorts of open source searches find out as much as we can about the setting before we go out. And then as I say once we've established reasonable cause we go out to the setting unannounced and then we will turn up knock on the door to conduct our inspection that day. So yes, those that we are visiting, want to know that we're coming out to see them
CJ: And paint a picture for as to how many inspectors that we are we talking about what kind of buildings are they turning up to?
SW: Well will really that depends on what we can find out about the setting before we go out. If we've been able to establish that is already a relatively small setting with small numbers of children, then we will you know we will you know decide how many inspectors we want to go accordingly. If it's a big site, where we've been able to work out that there could be a couple of 100 children, then of course, we will extend those numbers. Now sometimes, of course, we don't know. You know, we're not able to find out that that information. So generally, I would be sending two inspectors out or most inspections at least two people would be going out.
CJ: And are they have a regular school inspectors or do we give them special training or they got certain backgrounds?
SW: Okay, so all of our staff were originally Ofsted staff have all received extensive training. Our training is actually conducted at the Police College. So our is a criminal investigation. So all investigations need to be conducted under PACE conditions to ensure that when we collect evidence, it's admissible in court and so we you know, all of our staff have to learn those procedures and to make sure that they adhere to those in order to get if we have to get a case into court, but then the way we were able to do that.
CJ: So we are acting a bit like police officers then in that case that we?
SW: Absolutely as I said it's a criminal investigation. So if you think about it, the end result could be somebody's going to prison. I mean, that's that that could be the end result. So of course we have to make sure that we've secured that evidence in a way that we followed the investigation process thoroughly. As I said, all of our evidence is being collected in accordance with PACE. We conduct interviews, we take statements. So yes, sort of. We're following you know, we do the type of work that police officers would be doing.
CJ: Yeah. And these places these settings can be in a variety of buildings, can't they? I don't imagine many of them are in the old Victorian schools that we see around or nice, modern, new school buildings. Tell us a bit about where these places tend to be.
SW: Well, I think we hit the nail on the head there. I think we've seen settings in all sorts of places. Ranging from sometimes in school bill, old school buildings that used to house schools, but are no longer fit for purpose. So we've seen groups move into places like that. We've been to settings on industrial sites. We've been to, I once went to a setting inside a caravan. We've been to settings that are being run in domestic premises. So to be honest with you anywhere where you could, you know, have a roof over your head, probably you know, you're likely to find an unregistered
CJ: I’m interested in the caravan. How are they how are they running a school within a caravan?
SW: So this was a setting that we went out to a couple of years ago now was an unregistered AP that was running on farmland, and they had a six caravans on the site where the children were receiving their education. So for them to go from one subject to the other they would have to come outside of Bonn caravan and go into another cross a muddy field in the rain. So it wasn't really probably the best place to be having your schooling.
CJ: No. And so our inspectors turn up they knock on the door, they press the buzzer to the industry or state or whatever it is they do. What's their, what's the typical reception that they get?
SW: It differs there are some people who are doing this who don't actually realise that they're doing anything wrong, you know, they fall into it. Maybe there might be sometimes that they're good people who wants to try and do good things. And that's a bit mistaken really. And those people generally when you knock on the door will tend to invite you in and will welcome you in and that that's one that's one side if you like. There are another group of people that you will knock on the door and they'll hold you at the door. And the reason that they're holding you at the door is because they could be ushering children out of the back door and across the road. Or we've had a situation where children have been ushered through corridors that have been built in between houses, so that when, now whether they've been put in place for when Ofsted turned up, but certainly there are well rehearsed procedures I'm going to say to evacuate children from buildings for when we do turn up. So we have those situations. And then we've had other situations where people have been abusive when we've turned up. We've had inspectors who have been abused and there's been aggression shown towards them. And in fact, in our first year of operating, there was a provider who was a provider who was prosecuted for a racially aggravated offence against one of our inspectors at the time.
CJ: So I'm interested in these people that they quite clearly know they're doing something wrong, you know, if they're if they're holding an inspector out the door so they can get the kids out of the building or hide documents or whatever it is they know that what they're doing is not right, whether they know it's illegal or not, but they know that it's not it's not right, don't they?
SW: Absolutely. Yes. I mean, as I say it's well-rehearsed, but then they're often you know what once we get into the setting, they'll be the people who will be less than helpful, I'm going to say, yeah, so they will be the people who won't offer to tell you anything about the service that they're offering. Who won't offer to tell you the children about the children who are at the setting, because one of the things that we will want to do is to get the names and details of the children because whilst Ofsted is there to investigate unregistered schooling, and we are the only people that have access to these settings, so if it's an unregistered setting, there isn't anybody else with a statutory duty to be able to go in there. So one of you know, well say one of the most important rules we have placed that we've gone in there we have one chance. So if we observe concerns for the children's safety and wellbeing, we like to make those referrals to the those agencies that can do something about it, whether that be the local authority, whether that'd be the fire department or whether that be the police. And in order to help those children. Of course, we want details about those children, their names, dates of birth and addresses and so on and so forth. And so often those are the people who are not forthcoming with that sort of information who don't want to help us and give you give, perhaps give you an example of one case there. As I said, trying to get details about the children sometimes is really very difficult. And so you'll put a question in a different way to somebody and I would say to someone, and this did happen, I said you know, you have over 200 children in the setting, you must have a list of names. I was being told that there wasn't a list on the premises. And we'd said you what you must have a list of names that have you know, have children at the setting. Because for fire, you know, just purely if there was a fire alarm, you would want to be able to check those children out. And the answer that was given to me was that no list was required, because God would make a decision whether those children were going to survive or not. So that was really quite, quite worrying.
CJ: Yeah, absolutely. So you're not going in there and doing a typical Ofsted inspection. Then you're not looking at the quality of education and the personal development all that this is this is about establishing the facts of what's happening in this place.
SW: Absolutely. We're going in, as I mentioned at the beginning to conduct a criminal investigation, so we're looking at evidence to be able to prove one way or another with evidence that's pointing towards an offence that an unregistered school is taking place, or evidence that an unregistered school isn't taking place. Do you know where the investigator so we're looking for both ways.
CJ: Do we get a chance to talk to children very often who attend these places?
SW: Most certainly what when we're in the settings we do. I mean, that's something that all of the team try and endeavour to torture the children. Again, different provisions are very differently sometimes there isn't a problem, you know, sometimes those that are in charge are happy for the children to talk to us. And then there are other times where children are actively discouraged to talk to us. And we've had I've had I've been in settings where I have been engaging in a conversation and an adult has walked into the room and has been very angry. That the fact that I was you know that we were attempting to speak for children ushered children out raise voices. So yes, there are there are settings where people will make it very difficult for us to be able to try to talk to the children.
CJ: And is there ever a language barrier?
SW: Yes, yes. Sometimes. Yes. Sometimes there is absolutely.
CJ Do we ever take interpreters or people that speak that language as inspectors.
SW: We don't take we haven't taken anybody out with us. We've certainly used interpreters to look at some of the evidence that we've been able to secure on some of the visits but today, we haven't taken interpreters out with us. We're a bit in terms of what we need to collect on that day. We're able to ascertain whether they're children of statutory school age, generally by looking at the children we can observe what the children are doing. So to date, we haven't done that.
CJ: And what happens if you see if you go into a place you establish that this is this is essentially an illegal school. It's not safe for the children. Are we able to do anything about it at that point, do we just have to walk away?
SW: So if the setting is unsafe, as I mentioned before, you know we're looking at having one chance so we need to take the opportunity to do everything that we can and generally we would come away and as I said make those referrals but there have been occasions where it's been so bad when we've been on site that we've called those agencies whilst we're on sites, and we've asked them to join us. Certainly, I've been involved in inspections where we've called the local authority, for example, and said you need to come down here now we believe that children are at risk and can you come and join us? Members of my team were conducting an inspection, only the back end of last year where they had to call the local authority and the police to join them because they were worried for the safety of the young people.
CJ: What was going on in that setting?
SW: Again, information wasn't being shared. We were very, very worried about the premises. Some of these buildings, I mean, I mentioned to you that you know, the different types of buildings, but within those buildings, some of the premises that we've seen have been really quite bad, really squalid dirty, with electric cables falling down. No fire procedures padlocked fire doors. So when we've had real, you know, cause for concern about the children's safety where we haven't wanted to leave the children there, then then, you know, that's when we've called those agencies because we've been happy that they've, you know, rather than coming away and making that referral and then waiting for them to tell us that they've been there, we'd rather be there and when they turn up at the door,
CJ: And what about parents do encounter parents? What, what do you think if you put yourself in a position of some of these parents, what's their what's their motivation for sending children to these places?
SW: That's a really, really interesting question. It's something that we all ask ourselves that there's two different types of provision as we've mentioned before, there's the alternative provider and very often, perhaps those parents don't have a choice in it patch those children are placed at the setting because there isn't anywhere else for them. To go. So those parents maybe aren't doing that through choice. You're they're not they're not choosing to send, send the children there. But the other group of the other group of settings that we've spoken about, for example, some of the religious settings, those parents would have actively chose them and when you want us have to question why you do that some of these buildings as I've mentioned to you are cramped, tiny with no facilities, as I have said dirty. You know you do have to think what why would why would you do that? Why would you want to keep your children out of school where perhaps the school that's just a down the road from where they live that have the most wonderful things on offer art rooms, science labs, drama rooms, gym gymnasiums, why would you choose to send your child to essentially a broom cupboard? I went to set it once that was no larger than a broom cupboard. And the boys were sat in there having their lesson. So you have to do have to wonder parents have never spoken to us at those settings. Certainly if they were present during the visit, we would we would try and speak to them. But often when we're conducting our inquiries after a visit, that they often wouldn't want to talk to us and we would try we would absolutely always try to speak to people but they haven't often come you know, haven't taken up on our offer for questions, but it is something that we you know, continually ask ourselves.
CJ: Yeah, I mean, it must be a fairly compelling religious or cultural reason that's behind that decision was significant because like you say that it's a big that's a big trade off to have to make to send your child to some of these places that they must know I'm not I'm not actually suitable for children to be.
SW: And sometimes you want as I say, you, you go into the settings which really is heartbreaking. I have to say to you. Here we are 2022 in some of the biggest cities, and children are in sometimes I describe it as Dickensian rows of tables with broken chairs and they're sat there and why would you do that and how let down they must feel you know that they won't be able to compete with their peers, they often will have gone through this system and then you know, they're not having what you and I would consider a formal education. They're not taking examinations at the end of it. When they're not being prepared for life. You then must feel very let down. So yes, the question is, why would you do that?
CJ: Tell me a bit about what happens after the inspection then? So inspectors have gathered their evidence they've got the paperwork that they can that they can establish where do they go next?
SW: Well, if one if during the inspection is a small part of an investigation, I'm going to say that's something you that you do as part of an investigation. But if when we're out on site, we identify that there is evidence to suggest that an unregistered school is running. Then we would serve a warning notice to the person in charge who we identify as being the person in charge. And the warning notice sets out legislation. And it explains that you should cease operating as you are at the moment and then we will come away and we will carry on with further inquiries, that that may be all sorts of things where that you know, depending on what we found on site, but that often that visit will open up a lot of other avenues that we need to explore as part of the investigation. Sometimes we'll go back and we'll go back and sometimes that the people who have fallen into this by accident that didn't really mean it to turn into an unregistered school, they've done it sort of unknowingly, they will have been the people who have changed their ways. Who have made sure that they are now complying with the law. And then there are others who haven't who you know, who are carrying on in the way that we found them, you know, at the first visit, and it's that stage where we have to consider what to do next. Because obviously to prosecute somebody for running an unregistered school is I'm gonna say our last resort we'd rather do things without prosecuting people. But you know, when we've found you know, some of these dreadful conditions that I've told you about where we've warned people that it is an offence, sometimes we're left with no other option but to prosecute them. So we then work with the Crown Prosecution Service to put together a case file with a view of prosecution.
CJ: What how difficult are processes is that kind of do we need kind of super high standards of evidence to get the Crown Prosecution Service to take that on?
SW: we work to a very high level Yes, we work and we collect our evidence, mainly in the form of photographs. Currently, that's how we collect our evidence. And yes, we pull together our case files that are scrutinised, reviewed, and several times over to be able to put this this case file together. That's ultimately of course signed off by the Secretary of State and then taken forward by the Crown Prosecution Service, the complex case unit of the Crown Prosecution Service, in court.
CJ: It does sound complex. The inspectors wear cameras don't know is that is that so that they can gather evidence is that for their safety?
SW: Well, we use a body worn video camera for two purposes. And the first is the evidence Absolutely, it's a first-hand evidence you can then see it, it's there. And really there's no argument there in terms of what you can see. But yes, your right foot for inspector safety, as you know as I mentioned to you before, sometimes we're met in fairly hostile situations, and it is hoped that if someone is being filmed on camera, they're less likely to do something that they shouldn't do.
CJ: So through presumably we we do go into some places and conclude that they are, in fact operating completely lawfully do we?
SW: Well to gain entry as I mentioned earlier, one we have to have reasonable cause to believe. So as long as we've got our reasonable cause, we can go in there and that's because we believe that there's likely to be a school there. But after we've conducted that inspection, and we've, you know, observed the setting we've collected evidence, we may establish that a school isn't operating. And if that is the case, we will thank those who are in charge for their time, thank them for their cooperation, because they generally are the people of course that will cooperate, and then we go on our way.
CJ: Sue. That's been fascinating. Thank you so much. Really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.
SW: Thank you.
AT: Wow, Chris, that was really interesting. It must be quite intimidating for our inspectors turning up at these places. Not entirely sure. They will find.
CJ: Yeah, but it's such important work. As Sue said, often were the only people who get access to these places.
ST: Yeah. So listen to my interview with Katherine, where we talked about what might make that role easier.
AT: Hello, Catherine, thanks so much for coming and chatting to us today. Can you just introduce yourself a little bit before we get started?
KS: Sure. Yeah. So I'm Catherine Street. I'm a Senior Policy Officer in the unregistered schools team.
AT: Right. And you're going to talk to us a little bit about the kind of what next what will be helpful in terms of us being able to tackle this problem better. So I'm going to start off. I mean, it's not a small question, but really helpful for your take on it. So if we could just start off and I'm going to ask what changes do we need to make it easier to tackle illegal schools?
KS: Sure. So we need legislative change in three areas. So we're asking the Department of Education to make kind of changes to the law around our registered schools. So firstly, we need better registration requirements. So at the moment, there are a couple of loopholes in the registration requirements, which means that some places which you know, I would think of as a school don't technically counts as schools. And so that means that they don't have to register and the unregistered schools team can't really do anything about them. Secondly, we need better investigation powers. So we need to be to help us to do more thorough investigations and to gather all of the evidence we need to find out if an illegal school is being is operating, or to and if we do think there was one operating to gather the evidence, we need better investigation powers. And then lastly, just to make sure that when if we have prosecuted someone if someone has been found guilty of running an illegal school. The courts and the magistrates have the right sentencing options available to them, which means that they can't just carry on as they were before. So those are the kind of three areas of change that we really want the Department for Education to make as soon as they can. So their next kind of the next opportunity they had to change legislation we think there should be definitely be on their agenda.
AT: Great. That's really helpful overview and we really are so limited on what we can do. At the moment. So yeah, that's really helpful. Catherine. So in terms of can you just talk us a bit through what the current registration requirements are and why they're inadequate?
KS: Sure. So I'm most places that offer full time education to children. So it's four or more children, or children with either one charter child who's looked after or has an education health care plan, they have to register. There are a couple of loopholes in the law, which mean that the places that we would think of as a school don't actually have to register as a school. So you know, our inspectors will go into the settings and they'll see places where that are kind of running Monday to Friday during school hours. Lots of children. These are educational places, It's a school, classrooms. It's a school and but because of this loophole around the curriculum that they teach or the content of the education, it means that they don't, they don't they're not required to register at the moment. And so even if our inspectors see things that we find really concerning, and we have seen places with really were we don't think the education looks like it's very good, where we have kind of their safeguarding or health and health and safety problems. They don't have to register because they they're not delivering a suitable education, which is which is the language in legislation so we just need the Department of Education to close that loophole. And that's a real priority for us to make sure that we can move these children into places that are illegal and safe and have some oversight of them. And then there's another issue around defining what is full-time so we just need a bit more clarity in the law to make sure that anywhere that's providing all or almost all of the child's education counts as a school as well. So it's less kind of tied to particular number of number of hours and more about if it's a place that's really taking the function of a school. And I'm not I'm not talking about places that are supplementary to school, so we're not concerned about football clubs, you know, morning prayer groups before school, Sunday schools, music lessons, these are places that are really taking the place of the school and we think they should all have to be registered.
AT: Yeah, that's really helpful. So that's the kind of sizable that first step next in terms of investigation and prosecution what would make that easier because that's quite often where we come in, right?
KS: Yeah. So when we have reasonable cause to believe a school's operating and this isn't kind of your average Ofsted school inspection at all. These are just criminal investigations. And when we think a school might illegal school might be operating, we have reasonable cause. We need the right powers to mean that we can gather the evidence once we're in the setting. So for example, to search that's kind of the basis of most of our investigations. We need to be able to apply for search warrants. There's not something we can do at the moment. So we can do those real really thorough searches, so we can have the police with us when it's appropriate when it's necessary. And then we also want to be able to seize evidence. So this is actually something that other parts of Ofsted, who also conduct these criminal investigations can already do. So they can seize evidence on for example, in early years and social care when they're doing those criminal investigations. With the school with the illegal schools investigations. We can't at the moment so we just want those same powers to be able to seize evidence. Again, something we only use when it's appropriate. We wouldn't kind of be just taking every piece of paper that we could find. Yeah. We also want to be able to require information so we can ask for information about the setting. And that has two purposes really. So firstly, to be able to help us to gather the evidence, as I've talked about before, and also we want to be able to gather information about the children so that we can pass that information on to the local authorities to help them with their safeguarding role. So that's also something that's really important to us to be able to safeguard the children in the settings that don't have any kind of formal oversight and that in many cases are illegal. And we also want a bit of an extension of what's called the prosecution time limit. So we have six months to prepare a case at the moment and we want to increase that to 12, which we'd use when we needed to, we would still try and do it as quickly as possible because we really want these faces shut down as soon as we can as soon as we can, but sometimes we do need a little bit of extra flexibility.
AT: Yeah. Now that makes sense. And that bit about requiring the information. We talked so much, don't worry about the importance of sharing information, especially when they're safeguarding, you know, how do other agencies work together to ensure they're all working in the best interest of children? I think that is actually really, you know, would help close that loophole. Yeah, I guess.
KS: Yeah. And we want to know who the children are on the setting. So if we can ask an adult to give us that information, particularly because some places and many often in urban areas, will they'll be told you for more than one local authority, so we can tell the local authority where the setting is, but we that doesn't mean that that all of the children will have kind of the right local authority informed and that information will be given to the to the right people. So if we know who the children are, ideally, where they live, then we can pass that on.
AT: Yeah, great. Okay, brilliant. So then we kind of come to the last step, which is prosecution, and then what happens afterwards. So can you explain just a little bit about how we prevent these schools from carrying on after a prosecution because some do don't know You know, we know.
KS: Yeah, yeah. I think before we kind of started up prosecutions, we somewhat naively thought that once we prosecuted a place but we found that that hasn't so we've done six prosecutions so far and two of those were the same place twice, because we prosecuted them once that the individuals got kind of fines community service order, found guilty. Basically carried on and so we had to go through the whole process again. So what we want is that is for us to is for magistrates are in for courts to have the right sentencing options so they can hand down a sentence that prevents the person from carrying running that centre setting or similar settings. It means that that that's the sentence they're given that we could monitor that properly. And we you know, that would, that should kind of close these places down and mean that the children can move on to proper schools to legal registered places to a legal setting where somebody's looking at the education someone's looking at their safeguarding that will be important checks that are made and registered settings, children and settings that are that have those checks, which I think every child deserves.
AT: I'd really agree. Well, thank you. That was a bit of a whistle-stop tour I realised you know, there's three big areas that are asking for change, but they feel vital really don't then in making sure that we can continue to keep children safe and provide them with the education and care they deserve.
AT: Well, Chris, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss this hidden part of Ofsted work in a bit more detail.
CJ: Yeah, me too. And I've got to say that I'm sure we will keep banging on the government's door for the powers we need to help us investigate these places, and ultimately to help these children get a good and safe education.
AT: Exactly this. Yes. Thanks for listening today, everyone. I hope you've enjoyed the episode. And please do go back and listen to our previous episodes. If you haven't already. And we'll see you next time.