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Councils need more powers to protect children and tackle illegal schools

More powers are needed to make sure children being home educated are receiving a good education, and to help tackle illegal schools, council leaders say today

As concerns mount around illegal schools, which can have links to extremism or be housed in dangerous buildings, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, is calling on the Government to give councils the power to enter homes and other premises and see children to check the suitability of education being delivered if necessary, and to compel parents to register home educated children. The LGA also wants to see a clearer definition of a “school” to make it easier for Ofsted or the Department for Education to classify and close down illegal schools when they are uncovered.

Any parent has the right to withdraw their child from mainstream education, but currently does not have to give a reason for this. Councils have a statutory duty to make sure all children get a suitable education, but their powers to check this is the case with home educated children are limited – officials may only enter premises if they have specific concerns about a child’s safety.

Cllr Richard Watts, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said:

“The vast majority of parents who home educate their children do a fantastic job, and work well with their local council to make sure that a good education is being provided.

“However, in some cases, a child listed as home schooled can, in fact, be attending an illegal school. With limited powers to check on the work a child is doing, however, councils are unable to find out whether this is the case. They work closely with their communities to help identify where illegal schools are, but the ability to enter homes and other premises and speak to children would go a long way towards tackling the problem.

“In addition, not all children are registered as home schooled, particularly where they never joined the mainstream education system, or have moved to a different area. Placing a legal duty on parents to register home-schooled children with their local authority would help councils to monitor how children are being educated, and prevent children from ‘disappearing’ from the oversight of services designed to keep them safe.”

Figures obtained by the BBC through Freedom of Information requests in December 2015 identified a 65 per cent increase in children recorded as home educated over the last six years – an increase of more than 10,000 pupils, up to almost 37,000 in a school population of around 9.5 million pupils. This significant rise was linked by the Education Secretary and Ofsted to an increase in illegal schools, with a subsequent investigation by Chief Ofsted Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw finding more than 100 illegal schools educating thousands of children around the country.

In some cases, children have been taught in warehouses and old factories, and in facilities with open drains or no running water. Some illegal schools have also been linked to the teaching of extremist views.

Cllr Watts said: “Councils fully support the rights of parents to educate their children in the best way that they see fit, and have no intention of interfering with the education of thousands of children whose parents take their home education responsibilities extremely seriously. However, if councils have powers and appropriate funding to check up on children’s schooling, we can help make sure children aren’t being taught in dangerous environments, and are getting the education they deserve, while standing a better chance of finding and tackling illegal, unregulated schools more quickly.

“We also need to know that where there are concerns, the right regulations are in place so that Ofsted and the Department for Education can close illegal schools swiftly.”

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