A Government consultation on the definition of schools which closes this Friday could lead to inspections in yeshivas for the first time to ensure safeguarding processes are in-place.
The ‘Regulating Independent Schools Consultation,’ which closes on 8 May, began in February after local authorities and Ofsted said they could neither the power to inspect nor close down illegal educational settings without primary legislation.
Critics of the existing legal framework, which dates from 2008, say that illegal yeshivas and madrassas escape both scrutiny and sanction because they “fall through the cracks” in the law.
The consultation closing this week may mean more settings, including yeshivas, are classed as ‘independent schools’ if they are reclassified as full-time institutions.
This would mean they were regulated in the same way that independent schools are currently regulated, whereby inspectors can enter unannounced, check safeguarding processes were in-place, and if necessary seize paperwork as evidence.
The current definition an ‘independent school’ does not include settings educating children of compulsory school age in a narrow curriculum, such as religious-only curricula. As a result these settings cannot be registered, so cannot be regulated.
“This is clearly not a problem if it operates outside of normal school hours, in the evenings or at weekends, such as intensive sports training, or instrumental music tuition, or ballet,” said the Department for Education (DfE).
“However, it is very different if it is organised during the normal school day and so prevents the child from attending school. The DfE is aware of some settings that provide only religious instruction and that do operate in this way. In some local authority areas hundreds of children, mostly boys aged 13-16, attend such settings.”
In the London borough of Hackney, home to the UK’s largest Orthodox Jewish population, an estimated 1,500 Jewish teenage boys learn in around 25 yeshivas.
Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman told an online parliamentary scrutiny committee last month that it was “a serious problem” that needed primary legislation, but added that she was “nevertheless cautiously optimistic… I do get a sense that this is being treated with the seriousness that it deserves.”
Asked about inspectors collecting evidence, she said Ofted “had been frustrated by being unable to pick up and of children’s exercise books, for example, that make clear what is being offered. At the moment the operators of an illegal school can simply pick up literally every piece of paper when we arrive and walk out with it”.