Ofsted has warned local authorities to make decisions about educational placements with due diligence, after an investigation found a number of councils were misled into paying thousands of pounds of public money for children to be educated in an unsafe, unregistered school.
Last month (26 September) three people pleaded guilty at Lincoln Magistrates’ Court to conducting an unregistered independent school under section 96 of the Education and Skills Act 2008.
The prosecution, only the third of its kind, was brought following an investigation by Ofsted’s unregistered schools taskforce.
Patricia Hodgkinson, Dr Albert Okoye and Clement Earle received a conditional discharge and were ordered to pay £1,000 costs and £20 victim surcharge.
Ofsted said six local authorities were misled into paying hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money for children to be educated at Freiston Hall, Lincolnshire. The councils were being charged £1,200 a week for each child’s education.
“Freiston Hall clearly sought to identify itself as a school in its name, on its website and in other documents. Some local authorities told Ofsted that they were assured by the school that it was registered,” the watchdog said.
Freiston Hall was an unregistered school for looked after children with highly complex physical and mental health needs. Children lived on site at the registered children’s home while receiving all their education at the school.
Ofsted said that when one looked after child or a child with an education, health and care (EHC) plan is attending an educational setting full time, that setting must be registered as a school or it is operating illegally.
At Freiston Hall, inspectors found nine looked after children attending full time. Several of these children had an EHC plan.
The Department for Education referred Freiston Hall School to Ofsted’s unregistered schools taskforce in September 2017 after it was suspected to be operating without registration.
Despite a warning issued by Ofsted, the school continued to operate illegally.
Ofsted said it carried out two further pre-registration inspections, which found that Freiston Hall was unlikely to meet the government standards. “It had failed to carry out necessary staff suitability checks, to give first aid training to staff, and to supervise pupils adequately.”
At a final unannounced inspection, inspectors found unsupervised children wandering around the premises. Staff were struggling to keep reasonable order and calm, while children became agitated and upset, Ofsted said.
The watchdog said that Freiston Hall only closed because it had issued the associated children’s home with a suspension notice. The children were removed and placed elsewhere, leaving the proprietors no choice other than to close the school.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, said: “The people running Freiston Hall were receiving large amounts of public money from local authorities, which were paying for exceptionally vulnerable children to be educated in an unregistered, unsafe school.
“Registration is so important. Schools operating beneath the radar are not subject to regular inspection, so we cannot be assured that they are safe or providing good quality education. We want to send a clear message to those who continue to run unregistered schools, despite being warned not to. You will face justice.
“This case should also serve as a warning to local authorities. Decisions about placements must be made with due diligence. All local authorities should be carrying out the necessary checks to make certain that schools are registered with the Department for Education.”
Ofsted said that between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2018, it had identified 521 possible settings that may be unregistered schools:
Of these, 259 settings have been inspected and 71 have been issued with warning notices. Fifteen settings have since closed, while 39 have changed the way they operate in order to comply with the law, and 9 have registered as independent schools. The remaining cases are still under active investigation, while more settings continue to be identified.