Ofsted’s chief inspector has issued a fresh warning about the problem of illegal schools, as new figures showed that the watchdog has investigated almost 700 unregulated institutions in the last four years.
Amanda Spielman said that thousands of children were “languishing” in schools where officials could not guarantee that they were either safe or “getting a decent education”.
The warning came as new figures released by Ofsted showed that the body has carried out 694 investigations of unregulated schools since 2016, and issued 95 warning notices to organisations that inspectors concluded were operating illegally.
Mrs Spielman said: “Unregistered schools are a problem that isn’t going away. Thousands of children continue to languish in places where we cannot be sure if they are safe or getting a decent education.”
She warned that Ofsted’s hands were largely “tied” because the regulator was unable to force schools to close, or to seize evidence.
“We have long called for a change in the law to deal with the gaps in our powers and I’m confident that this is on the government’s radar,” she added.
The latest figures show that the body carried out 433 inspections of 345 schools across England since 2016. One in four were unregistered faith schools.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman and MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said: “Ministers have a basic responsibility to ensure that children are kept safe, and yet despite warning after warning, they have dragged their feet on this very serious issue, leaving children in unregistered schools where they could be in harm’s way.
“The most vulnerable children ended up being looked after by the least capable adults and as a result were robbed of their life chances.
“Without a doubt, the dangerous lack of local oversight of our schools system, created by the Tories’ education policy, is putting children at risk.”
Mrs Spielman added: “Our unregistered schools team have prosecuted four illegal providers and issued 112 warning notices to date, but to a large extent our hands are tied …We look forward to the outcome of the Department of Education’s consultation on tightening up the law in this space.”
Schools are classified as illegal if they are operating as schools but are not registered with Ofsted.
Previously some suspected illegal schools have argued that they are technically not schools, since children spend less than 18 hours a week studying there which under current law is how a school are defined.
In February, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said that anyone running an illegal schools should face “the full force of the law”.
On Saturday a Department for Education spokesman said: “Unregistered schools are unlawful and present a risk to children. They often do not teach a balanced and informative curriculum and unregistered schools can expose pupils to dangerous and extreme influences.
“The Department remains committed to ensuring that anyone found to be running an unregistered school faces the full force of the law and strengthening Ofsted’s powers to make sure they can shut down illegal schools.”