The scandal of illegal schools

The problem of crumbling schools has hit the headlines. Government inaction over illegal schools is another scandal which deserves equal attention.

(Humanist opinion piece published on various dates in September 2023 in the following newspapers: The Barking and Dagenham Post; The Romford Recorder; The Docklands & East London Advertiser; The Newham Recorder. This version was published in the Newham Recorder).

The problem of schools literally crumbling is just one example of shortcomings in our education system.

A scandal deserving equal attention is the Government’s abject failure to tackle illegal schools. A number are in East London. Humanists UK have been campaigning on the problem for years.  In March 2018 Amanda Spielman, the then Chief Inspector of Schools, told Parliament’s Education Select Committee that intolerant and extremist teaching in unregistered faith schools was ‘as bad as it has ever been and is deteriorating rather than improving’. 

In May 2022 a wide-ranging Schools Bill was published with much fanfare.  One aim was to raise standards for safeguarding children. It would have given Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate, powers to crack down on unregistered schools operating illegally. The proposals were welcomed by Humanists UK.

In December 2022 the Bill was scrapped and the provisions for illegal schools simply abandoned. In 2019 Ofsted reported that around 6000 youngsters attend such schools. The implications of Government neglect for these children are dire.

On a brighter note, Humanists UK won a resounding court victory in May.  Kent County Council had refused to admit a Humanist to membership of their statutory committee advising on Religious Education. These committees, known as ‘SACRES’, are in every district. Newham’s much admired SACRE is chaired by a member of Humanists UK.  Kent were swimming against the tide. The High Court upheld the challenge by Humanists UK. The landmark ruling reinforces the importance of children receiving a broad education which includes non-religious worldviews like Humanism on the curriculum.

These stories are two sides of the same coin. Children deserve a broad and inclusive education. It is an entitlement under the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child. It is fundamental to social cohesion and preparation for life in today’s multicultural Britain. Sadly, not all receive it.   Illegal schools are an extreme example. But action is also long overdue on, for example, making school assemblies inclusive and repealing the archaic law requiring daily acts of Christian worship.  The divisiveness caused by admission policies based on parents’ religion is another concern.

Astonishingly, there have been five Secretaries of State for Education between May 2022 and today. Education is not mentioned in Sunak’s five pledges. Humanists will continue to campaign to make reform of our education system a top priority.

Paul Kaufman. Chair East London Humanists

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