The head of the schools watchdog, Ofsted, has called for greater oversight of children who are being educated outside mainstream schools, describing the system in England as “unusually permissive”.
Amanda Spielman told MPs she was very concerned about the growing number of children who were not in school, with many apparently being home educated or taught in unregistered schools, “often with a very particular religious slant”.
Unlike in most countries, she said, parents in England were not required to register their child if they did not attend school, adding: “I’m not sure the historically permissive approach we’ve taken is going to be the sensible way to continue for ever.”
The chief inspector, giving evidence to the Commons education committee on Wednesday, called for greater powers to inspect unregistered schools and signalled that the current legislative framework was insufficient to deal with a changing education landscape.
She said it had been drawn up at a time when “nobody really contemplated there being schools that simply would not want to comply with the law”, adding it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain a system where “we simply don’t know what institutions exist, and what children are even in the country”.
Spielman said Ofsted teams had seen some “very disturbing things” during inspections of unregistered schools. “We have seen poor education, we’ve seen squalid conditions and we’ve seen some very worrying teaching materials in some of those institutions,” she said.
“Books by people who are banned from entering the country, books promoting very concerning practices advocating men beating their wives to punish them, advocating – teaching – that women are not entitled to refuse sex to their husbands and so on.
“I would very much like to have stronger powers to get entry to suspected unregistered schools and to seize evidence. At the moment we can copy, so we do take photographs where we can, but if the proprietors or teachers pick up everything that’s there and walk out with it, there’s nothing we can do, they can simply take it away.”
Spielman was also quizzed about the recent row at St Stephen’s primary school in Newham, east London, where she publicly backed the headteacher, Neena Lall’s decision to ban Muslim pupils under the age of eight from wearing the hijab. The decision was subsequently overturned following complaints from parents and local councillors about a lack of consultation.
Currently the Department for Education’s policy is for individual schools to set their own uniform policies. Spielman suggested, however, that in future such sensitive decisions should be taken out of the hands of individual schools and given to government or local authorities.
“We have a very autonomous school system where we delegate a great deal down to individual heads. Compared with most countries in the world, we give more autonomy to individual heads,” she said.
“If we are going to end up with an asymmetry where people conscientiously running often quite small schools can be effectively targeted and bullied in this way, I think we’re in a very worrying world.”
The Muslim Council of Britain has previously criticised what it described as an obsessive focus on the hijab. “The damage this has done to community relationships, and the trust between parents and the school, is incredibly serious,” it said.