Two individuals operating the Al-Istiqamah Learning Centre in Southall have been convicted of operating an unlicensed school at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, which is the first conviction of this kind.
The court heard that investigations found that 58 children, aged between five and 11 were being taught at the centre. Ofsted inspectors had tried to visit the centre in July 2017 but only one of the defendants was present as the centre was closed. Ofsted returned on 12th October 2017 and again on 14th November 2017. At these inspections the defendants informed inspectors that the centre tutored home educated children for up to 18 hours a week. The organisation was issued with a warning notice after the first inspection.
Independent educational institutions are required by law to register with the Department for Education. The term “independent educational institutions” is defined as meaning an “independent school”. An “independent school” is defined as: (a) a school; (b) at which full-time education is provided; (c) for five or more pupils of compulsory school age; and, (d) which is not maintained by the local authority.
The definition of ‘full-time’ education is not defined in law. However, the Department for Education issued guidance called “Registration of Independent Schools” in 2016 which states that it considers an institution to be providing full-time education if it is intended to provide, or does provide, all or substantially all, of a child’s education. Relevant factors in determining this might include:
- The number of hours per week that is provided (including breaks and independent study times)
- The number of weeks in the academic year the education is provided
- The time of day it is provided
- Whether the education provision in practice precludes the possibility that full time education could be provided elsewhere.
The court found that 27 children were in education for 25 hours a week and a number of other children too were in education for more than 18 hours a week. On top of this children received daily homework and the fees paid by parents suggested that education was provided for ten months of the year, as is normal for academic years. Children attended the centre between 9am and 2pm and therefore the court considered that this would preclude full-time education being provided elsewhere, although this might not have precluded some home education for an hour or so in the afternoon.
The combination of the above factors lead the court to be sure that the centre was being operated as an unregistered independent education institution, providing full-time education. The court found that the individual defendants controlled the operation jointly. Both were issued with fines and given a community order for a 12-week curfew, although the sentencing guidelines for this offence allows an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment up to six months.
The above case arises after years of Ofsted and the Department for Education calling for further powers in order to identify and prosecute groups operating unregistered independent schools. Ofsted have powers to investigate and inspect unregistered schools and are able to take some types of enforcement action where they consider these organisations to be acting unlawfully, such as the issuing of warning notices. However, prosecutions must then be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Whilst this is the first prosecution for such an offence, between 1st January 2016 and 31st July 2018 Ofsted identified 420 possible settings that may be unregistered. They have issued 63 warning notices and 55 settings have closed or ceased operating illegally, whereas the remainder are under active investigation. It is clear that there are likely to be further prosecutions of this nature and it is something Ofsted and the Department for England have made clear is a priority for them to investigate.
If you require any advice and assistance in relation to investigations or enforcement action taken by Ofsted, or advice on registration please contact our specialist Ofsted lawyers now on 01616 966 229.