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Ofsted inspectors to record evidence using body cameras when visiting unregistered schools

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Asbestos risk to children and staff in more than 5,000 English primary schools

From February 2020 until April 2020, Ofsted are piloting body-worn video cameras in all suspected unregistered illegal schools in order to protect their inspectors, seize evidence and increase prosecutions.

Ofsted have repeatedly called on the government to give them greater powers to investigate illegal schools in an attempt to close them down and prosecute those who run them. It is estimated that thousands of children are taught in suspected illegal schools run by unqualified staff and teachers who have been banned from the profession. Last year, Ofsted officials warned that some of the most vulnerable children are being left to play computer games all day in suspected illegal schools which ‘rob’ them of their life chances. Inspectors have found open sewers, rat traps, and exposed electrical wires in such schools.

Inspectors will inform individuals they encounter that they are using body-worn video cameras. An Ofsted spokesperson has stated that: “When our inspectors enter suspected unregistered schools they have no prior knowledge of the people they will be engaging with. We are piloting if body-worn cameras will improve the ability for our inspectors to carry out their job safely, while also securing best evidence as part of the criminal investigation and improving the ability of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute people who conduct suspected unregistered schools.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has stated that, "The use of body cameras is a good idea and we hope that it proves successful. But we would also like to see Ofsted given more powers to seize evidence. The fact that Ofsted has found safeguarding or health and safety concerns in over a third of unregistered schools shows the importance of this issue."

However, such cameras have sparked criticism from campaigners. Hannah Couchman, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty has stated that: “It is completely inappropriate for this type of surveillance technology to be used in any school. Body-worn video adds to the expanding web of surveillance technology we are being subjected to by the state, which risks making privacy a thing of the past. By giving school inspectors these cameras, we are teaching children to accept surveillance as part of everyday life. Ofsted must scrap these plans. We are extremely concerned by the creeping growth in the use of body-worn cameras, including in some NHS hospitals and by local authorities.

Since 2016, Ofsted have received more than 600 referrals of suspected illegal schools. Of those, more than 290 settings have been inspected and 83 have received formal warning notices. Footage from inspections will be retained by Ofsted if a warning notice is issued. It will then remain with the inspectorate until they decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

To be required to register as a school, a setting must be providing full-time education to at least five children of compulsory school age. It must also operate from a building and must offer a curriculum that includes maths and English. There is currently no legal definition of ‘full-time education’, but the Department for Education has issued guidance to say that 18 hours or more a week is likely to constitute full-time education.

Only three successful prosecutions have been secured against unregistered schools. In October 2018, Ofsted secured its first successful prosecution against an unregistered school followed by two more last year. However, the chief inspector recently warned a legal loophole means that there is nothing to stop convicted operators of illegal schools from continuing to run them.

If you are a provider who owns a school and you need advice in relation to Ofsted registration or you are facing criminal prosecution as a result of being unregistered with Ofsted, the regulatory team at Stephensons are available to assist you. Our specialist Ofsted lawyers have specialist experience of representing and advising providers in relation to compliance, enforcement action and appeals before Ofsted. Please do not hesitate to call our team of experts on 01616 966 229 for more information.