As you know, all independent schools are legally required to be registered. But to be considered an independent school, a provider must be delivering ‘full-time’ education and there is currently no legal definition of what ‘full-time’ means. The Department for Education (DfE) nevertheless states that any institution operating during the day for more than 18 hours a week is generally considered to be full-time. I understand some settings work around this by providing just under 18 hours of education per week. Even if a provider is operating full-time, it is not required to register if it only offers a narrow curriculum.
Ofsted has repeatedly asked the Government to close the loophole that allows settings providing a very narrow curriculum to avoid registration. It has also called for stronger investigative powers to seize evidence and search premises, and for greater powers to close settings that have been found guilty of operating illegally. In its 2020/21 annual report, Ofsted warned that thousands of children remain out of reach because of weaknesses in legislation and limits to its investigative powers.
In 2020, DfE ran a consultation on changing regulations for independent educational institutions, including extending the registration requirement to settings that operate full-time but only offer a narrow curriculum and on defining what ‘full-time’ means. The consultation closed in November 2020 and DfE says it will respond “soon”.
The Government has also committed to strengthening Ofsted’s powers to investigate unregistered independent schools at “a suitable legislative opportunity”.
More generally, I am concerned there is currently no requirement for local authorities to keep a register of home-educated children. In early 2021, Ofsted said around a quarter of unregistered settings it inspected claimed that children there were being home educated. The House of Commons Education Select Committee, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have all called for a register of home-educated children and I agree it is time to introduce one as a safeguarding measure. DfE ran a consultation on this in 2019 and is expected to respond by the end of the year.