Written evidence submitted by Humanist UK









At Humanists UK, we want a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We work to support lasting change for a better society, championing ideas for the one life we have. Our work helps people be happier and more fulfilled, and by bringing non-religious people together we help them develop their own views and an understanding of the world around them. Founded in 1896, we are trusted to promote humanism by over 85,000 members and supporters and over 100 members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Through our ceremonies, pastoral support, education services, and campaigning work, we advance free thinking and freedom of choice so everyone can live in a fair and equal society.


We are an active member of many organisations working on education and children’s rights. These include the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), the PSHE Association, the Sex Education Forum, and the Religious Education Council for England and Wales (REC). We provide materials, resources, and advice to a range of education stakeholders including parents, governors, students, teachers, and academics.


We lead the national campaign for action on unregistered religious schools and work closely with former pupils of such settings, as well as current members of closed religious communities, to highlight their experiences and provide evidence to the authorities. We are motivated to do so because we recognise that children have a right to education and should be able to form their own opinions on matters of religion and belief. Further, as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) makes clear, children are entitled to an upbringing that prepares them for a ‘responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national, and religious groups’.[1]


Our work in this area includes consulting directly with community whistleblowers as well as our apostate support programme Faith to Faithless.[2] It has generated substantial and significant media coverage on the issue of illegal schools, including features on Newsnight[3] and BBC News at Six and Ten.[4] This coverage prompted the creation of Ofsted’s unregistered schools team. We were the first external group to meet with that team, and the first to introduce them to pupils who had attended such schools. It also prompted Hackney Council’s own review of the issue in the local area. Our work has led us to conclude that the law surrounding both home education and illegal schools needs to be entirely overhauled to ensure that the latter can be shut down once and for all.



        Home education in England is hardly regulated at all and the lack of adequate information on the number, identity, and location of children who are educated outside of school means that the rights and welfare of children cannot be properly safeguarded;

        All policy in this area should be approached from the perspective of children’s rights, including the right to an education and the right to be protected from violence, abuse, and neglect. However, it is fundamentally clear that this is not currently the case;

     Loopholes in the law pertaining to home education enable unregistered and illegal schools to continue to operate by claiming to provide supplementary education for home-educated children. This is the case even when those children are receiving all or most of their education in such settings;

     While the Government has proposed to amend the law on what constitutes a school as well as provide a legal definition of full-time education, these changes will not be sufficient to prevent the operation of illegal and unregistered schools in the absence of better regulation of home education;

     The Government has consulted on such changes, including a register of home educated pupils with a legal duty on parents to register their children which we fully support. However, progress has been far too slow and no announcement has been made regarding when these changes are likely to be implemented;

     We therefore think it is imperative that the Government now acts quickly to protect the thousands of children at risk in illegal and unregistered settings by closing all of the legal loopholes that allow them to operate in a coherent and joined-up manner.



At present, home education in England is extremely poorly regulated. Indeed, owing to the absence of a register of home educated children, the Government does not even hold accurate information on the number of children who are purportedly being taught at home,[5] let alone whether they are receiving a suitable education. In our view, this is a problem for two key reasons. First, it means that children’s rights, including the right to an education as enshrined by Article 8 the UNCRC,[6] are not being adequately safeguarded.


Second, this lack of adequate regulation and oversight limits the ability of a number of authorities – including Ofsted, local authorities, and the Department for Education (DfE) – to tackle the problem of illegal and unregistered schools, many of which use home education as a cover for their activities.



All policy pertaining to education should, first and foremost, be approached from the perspective of children’s rights as set out in the UNCRC. However, the serious lack of proper oversight and regulation of home education means that, in this area, the rights, interests, and welfare of children are almost entirely ignored and often subsumed by the interests of parents.


For instance, under Article 8 of the UNCRC, children have a right to an education which states parties have a duty to uphold. However, owing to the fact there is no requirement for parents whose children have never attended school to inform the local authority that they are home educating, there is no real way to establish how many such children there are, let alone whether they are receiving a broad and balanced education (or any education at all). What’s more, despite having a legal duty to identify children who aren’t receiving a suitable education, local councils have no right to visit home educated children to check whether this is the case, with parents permitted to decline such visits.


Further, although councils may enter homes if they have a welfare concern, the lack of a register of home educated pupils makes it less likely that such concerns will be raised in the first place. Vulnerable ‘off grid’ children may never come into contact with authorities or those outside their household, and may also be allowed to slip unseen through the cracks in regulation if their parents move between local authority areas.[7] This clearly flies in the face of the duty of states to protect children from violence, abuse, or neglect outlined in Article 19 of the UNCRC.


None of this is to suggest that home-educated children are necessarily at greater risk of harm or of receiving a poor education than other children – as an organisation, Humanists UK does not take a stance on whether, in principle, it is more or less desirable for children to be educated at home than at school. However, the absence of an adequate system of regulation does mean that there is no way of adequately identifying the children who are at risk and, therefore, of taking steps to protect them and their educational development; a situation that should be addressed as a matter of urgency.



In 2019, Ofsted revealed that approximately 6,000 children are at risk in illegal or unregistered schools.[8] Ofsted has investigated 694 suspected illegal schools since its unregistered schools unit was set up in January 2016. Of these, 109 were known to be places of religious instruction. A further 184 were settings providing general education, which may or may not have a faith character but are not broken down by religion in the published data.[9]


Of the 345 unregistered settings Ofsted has physically inspected, 19 were known to be Christian, 20 Jewish, and 46 Muslim. However, because inspectors lack the power to properly examine and seize evidence from these settings, it is difficult to ascertain what proportion of the remaining schools are linked to faith groups and non-faith settings are grouped together with those of unknown religious affiliation.


Many of the children who attend illegal or unregistered schools are taught by unqualified teachers in appalling conditions where there is a total lack of safeguarding.[10] When these schools have a religious character, the curriculum is usually narrow, focused on learning religious scripture (sometimes including extreme misogynistic and homophobic content[11]) to the exclusion of other basic subjects such as English, Maths, and Science. Indeed, we have worked with former pupils from these schools who, despite being born and brought up in England, left these settings unable to speak English and found themselves ill-prepared for life in modern Britain and unable to find adequate employment. One said he left school with the educational level of the average nine or ten year old. As adults these pupils now say they believe the language barrier was ‘deliberately implemented’ as a way for community leaders to ‘[limit] contact between community members and outsiders’. Investigations we have conducted into the practices of illegal schools, including joint investigations with Newsnight and BBC News at Six and Ten,[12] have also found that corporal punishment and physical abuse is often the norm.[13]


Currently, settings providing only religious or scriptural instruction to their pupils do not qualify as schools. This is because the breadth of the education provided at such settings does not meet (or attempt to meet) the independent school standards, which define in law what constitutes an independent school.[14] By law, such institutions only need to register if they provide a curriculum that is suitable for children of primary or secondary age.[15] In other words, it actually benefits these institutions to give children a narrow, unsuitable form of education because then they are not subject to legal oversight even when, owing to the lack of a statutory definition of ‘full time’ education, the children they teach receive all or most of their education in the setting.


Unregistered schools can further avoid the need for registration by claiming to be providing only supplementary education to pupils, who are being otherwise educated at home. However, without any way of verifying that the children within these settings are actually being educated at home – i.e. through the ability to check a national register of such children – relevant authorities are limited in their ability to check up on their education. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that neither part-time nor out-of-school settings are required to register, meet any educational standards, or keep a register of pupils.[16] In other words, even when Ofsted or a local authority identifies children who they suspect are attending an illegal school, they are practically powerless to follow up, and may never even find out the names of the children concerned.



To date, largely as a result of the flaws in the legal framework, including the one relating to home education, there have been just four successful prosecutions of the providers of illegal schools, three of which involved Muslim schools.[17] Alongside Humanists UK, and local safeguarding authorities – particularly in Hackney, where many unregistered Jewish schools, known as yeshivas, are located – Ofsted has repeatedly called for additional powers to tackle the problem, which it currently has to do with one arm tied behind its back.[18], [19]


With this in mind, the Government has recently announced a number of changes to tackle the issue, including tightening the law around what counts as a school and with respect to home education. These proposals are discussed briefly below.


Regulating independent educational institutions

In early 2020, as part of a consultation entitled Regulating independent educational institutions, the Government finally proposed three key changes to the law that will make it easier to tackle the problem of unregistered religious settings:


  1. Widen the range of educational settings that must register with the Department for Education and establish a legal definition of ‘full time’ education;
  2. Give the Government additional powers to change the law if providers are found to be using legal loopholes to continue to deny pupils a broad and balanced education;
  3. Change the way the deregistration process works so that independent schools that continually fail inspections can be tackled more quickly.

We strongly support the proposals, which largely reflect what we have been asking the Government to bring forward for many years. However, much as we support the overarching proposal to broaden the range of institutions that the regulations will cover, we are still somewhat concerned at the lack of detail with respect to how precisely this will be done. This is especially the case with respect to the legal definition of full time education and the criteria according to which institutions will be required to register, which, it is suggested, should be based on a threshold of settings that provide 18 hours or more during ‘usual school hours’.[20]

In our view, while 18 hours per week may be an adequate threshold for drawing a rough line between part-time and full-time provision, we do not think that it should mark the division between the type of institution that has to register and that which does not. Instead, if the Government determines that a time threshold is necessary to establish the kinds of part-time institutions that should be caught by the legislation, we would suggest that they look to the proposals laid out in the Out of school education settings: call for evidence[21] conducted between November 2015 and January 2016, which recommended that settings that provide ‘intensive education’ should be regulated. In this context, ‘intensive’ constitutes more than 6-8 hours per week.


Possible objections to this lower threshold catching inappropriate settings (e.g. certain types of after school club, sport, or music tuition) under the regulations could be addressed through legal provision which, as outlined in the most recent consultation, expressly excludes particular types of setting, perhaps including those that operate only at weekends. In borderline cases, settings could be permitted to apply for an exemption to the register. This would require some kind of oversight to determine whether an exemption is appropriate and could be renewed on a regular basis. Alternatively, all settings providing more than 6 hours’ education/tuition could all be required to register, with those in the categories mentioned above simply being explicitly excluded from additional oversight beyond basic registration.


A further difficulty with making hours of operation and/or attendance a key criterion for registration is that it opens the door to supposedly part-time institutions working together to provide full-time education to particular groups of pupils (including those who are purportedly home-educated) while avoiding registration. In our experience, the providers of unregistered religious schools are both determined to continue operating and adept at exploiting weaknesses in the law to do so. For this reason, we think it likely that some of these institutions will consider sharing pupils over the course of a day or week so that they are able to carry on providing only a narrowly religious curriculum without state oversight or censure and putting these pupils at continued risk.


To this end, we suggest that the new legislation must adopt a statutory definition of ‘full-time’ that is not only based upon a minimum time threshold as suggested, but which includes some reference to the extent to which the provision constitutes all or most of the pupils attending the setting’s overall education. On this basis, an ostensibly part-time setting should, at the very least, be required to register when it is responsible for providing a child’s primary source of education. Although, to adequately avoid multiple settings sharing pupils in a way that enables them to claim they aren’t providing the majority of their pupils’ education, it would clearly be better if all part-time settings were expected to register. As long as the proposed changes regarding what constitutes an independent school adequately catch full-time places of religious instruction, this task could be largely achieved by bringing into effect provisions, already in Part 4, Chapter 1 of the Education and Skills Act 2008,[22] which relate to the registration of part-time settings that would be classed as independent schools but for the fact they provide only part-time education.


Delays and barriers to implementation

We are also concerned that the lack of necessary detail with respect to how exactly to regulate illegal schools means that there is likely to be a considerable delay between the close of the latest consultation (which has already been delayed by the pandemic) and when those new regulations are implemented. We note that it has now been over six years since we first publicised the issue of unregistered religious schools, and four since Ofsted’s Unregistered Schools Team began investigating them. A child who entered reception class in one of these institutions at the beginning of this period would now be approaching secondary school age. To ensure that such children have the opportunity to get the broad and balanced education to which they are entitled in a safe environment, we urge the Government to move swiftly or seriously risk jeopardising the life chances of thousands more children and young people.


The home-education register

A similar problem arises with respect to closing the home-education loophole because, despite consulting on proposals for a compulsory local authority register of home educated children in April 2019,[23] the Government is yet to publish a response or indicate whether it is going to move forward with this vitally important policy. Again, it is worth emphasising that we strongly support the Government’s proposals pertaining to home education, particularly as these include a duty on parents to register their children as home educated. In our view, in the absence of such a legal duty, it will be impossible for local authorities to collect accurate information and safeguard the rights and interests of children because the most at-risk children will generally be those whose parents are the least likely to opt in to a system of registration.[24] What’s more, without changes to the law on home education, the efficacy of the proposed legislation around the regulation of independent schools will be severely limited, especially if a time threshold is the key criterion used to determine what constitutes a school. Unscrupulous providers will simply ensure their (published) hours do not exceed 18 and continue to claim to provide supplementary lessons for home educated children with no way to verify their claims.


Given the serious risks to the welfare, safety, and education of children both in illegal and unregistered settings, as well as those who aren’t currently receiving any form of education at all, it is imperative that swift, joined-up action is taken to close all of the gaps in the regulatory system at the same time. Only then will we be able to ensure that every child in England receives the broad and balanced education to which they are entitled in a safe environment.


November 2020


[1] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) <https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[2] Faith to Faithless (2020) <https://www.faithtofaithless.com/> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[3] BBC Newsnight, ‘British Humanist Association exposé on indoctrination by illegal Jewish schools which are registered charities’ (2016) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACgWIZLxhBw> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[4] Humanists UK, ‘Joint BBC/Humanists UK investigation: abuse at illegal religious schools’ (26 February 2018) <https://humanism.org.uk/2018/02/26/joint-bbc-humanists-uk-investigation-abuse-at-illegal-religious-schools/> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[5] Recent estimates suggest that between 55,000 and 58,000 children are known by local authorities to be home-educated  see House of Commons Library, Home Education in England (July 2019) <https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn05108/> [accessed 2 November 2020]; and Association of Directors  of Children’s Services, Elective Home Education Survey 2019 (November 2019) <https://adcs.org.uk/assets/documentation/ADCS_Elective_Home_Education_Survey_Analysis_FINAL.pdf> [accessed 2 November 2020]. However, owing to the voluntary nature of registration, these are acknowledged to likely underestimate the true figure (thought by the ADCS to be closer to 80,000), and since the start of the pandemic the number is thought to be rising – see Sally Weale, ‘Rise in pupils in England being home-schooled due to Covid fears, says Ofsted chief The Guardian (30 September 2020) <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/30/rise-in-home-schooling-is-partly-down-to-misinformation-says-ofsted-chief> [accessed 3 November 2020].

[6] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) <https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[7] Children’s Commissioner, Skipping School: Invisible Children – How children disappear from England’s schools, (February 2019) <https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/cco-skipping-school-invisible-children-feb-2019.pdf> [accessed 5 November 2020].

[8] Humanists UK, ‘New data on illegal schools reveals grave situation, says Humanists UK’ (12 April 2019) <https://humanism.org.uk/2019/04/12/new-data-on-illegal-schools-reveals-grave-situation-says-humanists-uk/> [accessed 5 November 2020].

[9] Ofsted, Unregistered schools management information (1 January 2016 - 31 March 2020) <https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/unregistered-schools-management-information> [accessed 5 November 2020].

[10] Humanists UK, ‘Education pamphlet endorsed by religious community leaders is manifesto for corporal punishment’ (22 May 2020) <https://humanism.org.uk/2020/05/22/education-pamphlet-endorsed-by-religious-community-leaders-is-manifesto-for-corporal-punishment-ofsted-head-tells-inquiry/> [accessed 3 November 2020].

[11] Ofsted, Unregistered schools: Ofsted advice notes’ (November 2015 & May 2016) <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unregistered-schools-ofsted-advice-note> [accessed 3 November 2020]; Humanists UK, ‘Intolerant teaching at private and unregistered faith schools as bad as it has ever been, says Ofsted Chief Inspector’ (8 March 2018) <https://humanism.org.uk/2018/03/08/intolerant-teaching-at-private-and-unregistered-faith-schools-as-bad-as-it-has-ever-been-says-ofsted-chief-inspector/> [accessed 3 November 2020].

[12] BBC Newsnight, ‘British Humanist Association exposé on indoctrination by illegal Jewish schools which are registered charities’ (2016) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACgWIZLxhBw> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[13] Humanists UK, Joint BBC/Humanists UK investigation: abuse at illegal religious schools’ (26 February 2018) <https://humanism.org.uk/2018/02/26/joint-bbc-humanists-uk-investigation-abuse-at-illegal-religious-schools/> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[14] The Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations 2014 <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2014/3283/made> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[15] Education Act 1996, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 4 <https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/56/section/4> [accessed 3 November 2020].

[16] We note that the Government has recently launched a voluntary code of conduct for out of school settings, but, as we argued in our response to the consultation on the matter, this is unlikely to provide an adequate solution to the problem of illegal schools and actually risks kitemarking poor practice (see Humanists UK, ‘Voluntary code of practice for out-of-school settings risks kitemarking illegal schools warns Humanists UK’ (2 February 2019) <https://humanism.org.uk/2019/02/20/voluntary-code-of-practice-for-out-of-school-settings-risks-kitemarking-illegal-schools-warns-humanists-uk/> [accessed 2 November 2020]); Humanists UK, ‘Voluntary code of practice for religious tuition centres will do nothing to stop illegal schools, warns Humanists UK’ (23 October 2020) <https://humanism.org.uk/2020/10/23/voluntary-code-of-practice-for-religious-tuition-centres-will-do-nothing-to-stop-illegal-schools-warns-humanists-uk> [accessed 3 November 2020].

[17] The most recent of these was in March 2020 -- see: Humanists UK, ‘Humanists UK welcomes successful prosecution for running an illegal school’ (5 March 2020) <https://humanism.org.uk/2020/03/05/humanists-uk-welcomes-successful-prosecution-for-running-an-illegal-school/> [accessed 2 November 2020]).

[18] Humanists UK, ‘Lack of engagement from unregistered Jewish schools makes safeguarding impossible, Hackney commissioner tells child abuse inquiry’ (12 August 2020) <https://humanism.org.uk/2020/08/12/lack-of-engagement-from-unregistered-jewish-schools-makes-safeguarding-impossible-hackney-commissioner-tells-child-abuse-inquiry/> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[19] Humanists UK, ‘No real progress made on illegal schools as Ofsted expresses frustration at lack of 

regulatory teeth’ (21 January 2020) <https://humanism.org.uk/2020/01/21/no-real-progress-made-on-illegal-schools-as-ofsted-expresses-frustration-at-lack-of-regulatory-teeth/> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[20] Department for Education, Regulating independent education institutions (October 2020) para. 2.14-2.15 <https://consult.education.gov.uk/school-frameworks/regulating-independent-education-institutions/supporting_documents/Regulating%20IEI%20Consultation%202020%20Relaunch.pdf > [accessed 2 November 2020].

[21] Department for Education, Out-of-school education settings: call for evidence (November 2016, para 3.7 <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/480133/out_of_school_education_settings_call_for_evidence.pdf> [accessed 2 April 2020].

[22] Education and Skills Act 2008, Part 4, Chapter 1, S.92 (1) b <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/25/part/4> [accessed 2 April 2020].

[23] Humanists UK, ‘Humanists UK welcomes compulsory home-school register as move to shut down illegal schools’ (2 April 2019), <https://humanism.org.uk/2019/04/02/humanists-uk-welcomes-compulsory-home-school-register-as-move-to-shut-down-illegal-schools/> [accessed 2 November 2020].

[24] We note that this duty was omitted from similar proposals for a register of home educated children recently consulted on in Wales – see: Welsh Government, Consultation on draft regulations: The Children Act 2004 Education Database (Wales) Regulations 2020; & The Education (Information about Children in Independent Schools) (Wales) Regulations 2020 (January 2020) <https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/consultations/2020-01/consultation-document.pdf> [accessed 2 November 2020].