26 August 2021, 1:42pm
While some in Britain are understandably anxious about the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan and the prospect of the Central Asian country becoming an international jihadist training ground, long-standing domestic problems concerning religious radicalism continue to persist.
The issue of unregistered private schools in British Muslim communities is one of them. This has been thrust into the limelight yet again after a headteacher was warned that she faces a prison term after continuing to run an illegal Islamic private school – in defiance of a previous conviction. Nadia Ali, 40, ran the Ambassadors High School in Streatham, South London, for over half a year after being sentenced to community service for operating the unregistered school. The institution, which charged £2,500 a year and had in the region of 45 pupils, was previously found to have major safeguarding issues.
The Ambassadors High School’s record-keeping of student admissions and attendance was considered to be poor, with its leading figures failing to conduct the most elementary of suitability checks on teachers. Ofsted inspectors stated that there was ‘no plan in place to actively promote fundamental British values’ and reportedly found material in the staff room which encouraged parents to issue physical punishments to their children if they did not pray and advanced the view that a wife ought to obey her husband. Ali said that a mosque had donated these materials and they were locked away in the staff room.
This problem is far from new and governing politicians have been warned time and again about the risks carried by the existence of unregistered Islamic schools. The Casey review, led by Dame Louise Casey and commissioned by the UK government when David Cameron was prime minister, expressed concerns about the safeguarding of children attending unregistered schools in segregated communities. According to the report, some unregistered faith schools had ‘squalid and unsafe conditions’ where staff have not been sufficiently vetted to work with children. In his 16 May 2016 letter to the Secretary of State for Education (at the time Nicky Morgan), Sir Michael Wilshaw said Ofsted’s inspection process:“‘Firmly reinforces my belief that there are many more children hidden away from the view of the authorities in unregistered schools across the country than previously thought.’
In April 2019, Ofsted estimated that as many as 6,000 children are being educated in the unregistered settings it has inspected to date – stating that these pupils are potentially at risk ‘because there is no formal external oversight of safeguarding, health and safety or the quality of education provided’.
Over a fifth – 21 per cent – of the settings investigated were places of religious instruction, with 23 per cent of these settings being located in London. Ofsted’s deputy director in charge of the unregistered schools taskforce, Victor Shafiee, warned that ‘we need to make sure children are safe and receiving a good education that prepares them for life in modern Britain.’
This strikes at the heart of the problem – unregistered schools in poorly-integrated elements of the population represent a future social risk which our society cannot afford to overlook. Unregistered religious schools which are not subject to formal oversight over matters of safeguarding and rooted in segregated communities, play their part in the fostering of ‘parallel societies’ which threaten to tear apart the nation’s social fabric.
The reality of the matter is that the UK government – while admittedly preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic – is failing spectacularly in yet another area of education. The government has been woeful in cracking down on illegal unregistered schools – a notable portion of which are radical Islamic schools which may promote values which are antithetical to liberal democratic norms. Indeed, the government has potentially been sleeping at the wheel during the pandemic. Sir Alan Wood, who has led multiple government safeguarding reviews, said a rise in home education during the pandemic may have spurred on unregistered providers to ‘try and expand their activity’.
While some members of the Conservative party blather on about the supposed virtues of foreign ‘nation-building’ exercises in countries like Afghanistan, they would do well to concentrate on the domestic social risks which are intensifying in segregated elements of Britain’s minority-faith communities. One of the British state’s primary responsibilities is ensuring that children are being given a sound, intellectually-challenging, well-rounded education when attending a school – an educational experience which provides a safe environment and prepares them well for adult life in modern-day Britain.
The existence of religious indoctrination in illegal unregistered schools is a stain on our society. Local councils and other community safeguarding agencies should be afforded the power and responsibility to check on unregistered settings, with Ofsted being given sharper teeth to seize evidence and shut down schools after successful prosecutions of those involved in the running of those unregistered institutions.
There is no room for complacency – it is time for a robust multi-agency approach to tackle Britain’s illegal unregistered schools.
WRITTEN BY Rakib Ehsan
Dr Rakib Ehsan is an independent expert on community relations. His PhD thesis investigated the impact of social integration on British ethnic minorities.