The meaning of school

    Owen Booker has worked in child care, therapeutic
    communities, and mainstream education and the independent,
    voluntary and local authority sectors. He is a freelance education
    consultant specialising in conflict reduction, but retains some
    local education authority work in learning and behaviour support
    services. He is also an advocate with Voice for the Child in

    The government continues to move to ensure all provision for
    children meets national standards. Legislation and guidance have
    been slowly closing gaps in the legal framework surrounding
    education. In particular, the new requirements for schools
    registration are bringing into focus a substantial number of
    children who have been beyond sight of the Department for Education
    and Skills (DfES).

    The critical new factor results from the definition of a school
    in the Education Act 2002: “Any arrangement for the full-time
    teaching of just one child in public care, or with a statement of
    special educational needs (SEN), or any five or more other
    children, is now by definition a school, and subject to DfES
    standards and Ofsted inspection.”1

    This has an impact on the range of residential care providers
    and foster care organisations – particularly in the independent and
    voluntary sectors – where offers of “educational programmes” have
    in the past attracted the social services placement of considerable
    numbers of children with complex needs.

    The incidence of SEN is already highest among children in public
    care, but particularly at issue are children with challenging
    behaviour from whatever origin, or with social, emotional and
    behaviour difficulties. As a result of the DfES changes, some
    residential providers, which have routinely admitted
    difficult-to-place children, are reviewing their mission and
    resources, admissions criteria and market focus.

    Many children’s homes rushed to keep their options open
    and register their educational facilities before regulations came
    into force in September 2003. This rush has inundated the DfES and
    not all applicants will emerge with education facilities intact.
    While these changes work themselves through, finding suitable
    residential placements with education for this group of children is
    proving problematic.

    Under the Education Act 1944, it is a local authority’s
    responsibility to ensure all children within its borders are
    suitably educated, whether this is in mainstream schools or

    For children in public care, local authorities as corporate
    parents have been able to endorse almost any child’s
    particular educational provision agreed between education and
    social services. However, that they were sufficiently “joined up”
    to do this – and that the education was always appropriate and of
    good quality – has not been a reliable assumption.

    The Quality Protects programme demands that local authorities
    improve placement stability and meet educational targets and
    performance indicators for children in care.2 As a
    result it is becoming increasing difficult to be less than rigorous
    about the suitability of education arrangements at any looked-after
    child’s review.

    Inclusion initiatives, and the decline of day special
    schools,3 ensure most children with SEN are educated
    within mainstream schools.

    Regarding independent schools, their status with the DfES is
    that they are either unregistered or “registered” to a minimum set
    of standards, or “approved” to standards that include higher
    curriculum and quality comparisons, or other considerations
    relevant to the educational purpose of the particular school.

    “Approved” independent schools (special or otherwise) can take
    pupils with SEN statements without the placing local authority
    having to apply for consent. But when “registered” only, the
    education provider must apply to the DfES for consent to
    individually admit each pupil protected by a statement. This is
    cumbersome, and an administrative nuisance to both the DfES and
    local authorities.

    A while ago the DfES consulted the sector on this matter, but
    was unable to better resolve the current arrangement. Since that
    time the Education Act 2002 has, in part, begun to address the
    anomalies, although no legislation yet demands that “approved”
    status is the only acceptable form of school for these

    The act covered a series of educational issues, including the
    regulation of child-minders, curriculums, arrangements for local
    authorities to recoup educational costs from each other, as well as
    the registration of independent schools.

    The act puts an array of educational arrangements into
    regulatory control. Although the regulations do not define
    full-time education, some local authority special schools and pupil
    referral units that provide only about 20 hours a week are
    Ofsted-approved, and discussion with the DfES indicated this to be
    the threshold. In only a few special cases might limited
    educational provision escape definition as a school, and also
    satisfy what is set out in the child’s statement of SEN or
    looked-after child plan. The requirement to register schools will
    also encompass hospital schools, and centres where children are
    substantially off site – as is the case when a programme includes
    vocational training or courses at local colleges.

    All small education centres for SEN and all children’s
    homes with education will now come under Ofsted regulation and
    inspection. The inspections will concern site, resources, the
    content of curriculum and quality of teaching. Many organisations
    will lack the rigour and expertise needed even to achieve
    “registered” status, and fewer still will immediately meet
    “approved” standards.

    At present, unregistered schools that applied for registration
    before 31 August 2003 have a two-year transitional period of grace.
    But during this time they will need to show that they meet
    requirements or are progressing towards these, and Ofsted
    inspectors will visit at least twice.

    Not all organisations will wish to go down this path. And not
    all schools will survive the process or pass inspection when this
    begins in September 2005. Also any new school must now meet all
    registration criteria before it can open.

    Only organisations that have sufficient capital will have the
    resources, vision and expertise to ensure their investment will be
    acceptable and productive. Inevitably, many will choose not to
    attempt it.

    The law may also be causing some organisations to retreat, as
    there are prosecution penalties for operating an unregistered
    school. Many care providers are now only admitting those children
    they see as readily admissible to the local mainstream school, and
    this in turn will further pressure local schools and their
    respective authorities. No matter how therapeutically sound a
    placement might be, it will be jeopardised if educational legality
    is compromised.

    This legislation will influence commercial children’s
    homes, which will look first to neighbourhood schools for the
    education of the children in their care. Where there are provision
    clusters there will be commensurate pressure on local
    children’s services. And although the 2002 legislation
    provides for costs to be recouped from the home authority for
    “cross-border” placements, this goes only some way to ease such

    Just as the change to care standards saw the disappearance of
    many of the smallest children’s homes, a return towards local
    foster care and a “rationalisation” of the independent and
    voluntary market, so also will the education map of provision be
    quite different in a few years. There will be gradual market
    consolidation, and more distinctive sectors will emerge.

    Developments in Shropshire illustrate the coming changes. This
    county has much well-established independent child care, and it is
    normal for there to be at least 100 out-of-county (placed by other
    authorities) children at any one time in its day schools who are
    locally resident in independent small children’s homes or
    foster care. Most of these children have behaviour or learning
    difficulties, and the authority is well aware how their presence
    affects local schools, especially during the “angry stage” after
    care placement.

    For example, New Horizons Childcare has always sought to use
    local Shropshire schools. This company is clear its core business
    is small children’s homes, and it aims to stick with
    placements, stabilising child behaviour and breaking the placement
    cycle; but it does not wish to run schools. It is reviewing how it
    may support and progress the education and social readiness of
    individual children in order to ensure their eventual attendance at
    a local school is successful.

    Conversely, Family Care Associates regards education services as
    part of the package they offer. In Shropshire, they have
    substantially invested in a new school to improve the quality and
    accessibility of education for children in its care. They reason
    that as several providers will be discarding their educational
    components, FCA has an opportunity to establish itself even more
    strongly as a dual provider.

    Meanwhile, Corvedale Care provides crisis and longer-term care
    for significantly disturbed adolescents. Its educational
    arrangements include personalised programmes that draw on a
    registered school, extensive adventure education, local colleges
    and into work transition arrangements. The legislation is causing
    this company to bring into core registration its different and
    varied clusters of educational provision.

    Distinctions between child care and child care with education
    will consolidate, and it will become increasingly rare for children
    to fall through the education net, or receive indifferent


    This article draws attention to recent legislation concerning
    the definition of a school. It explains what this means and how it
    affects different providers of special education and residential
    child care, and local authority education services. It argues that
    the new regulations will affect the market for child care with
    education, with potential knock-on effects for local authorities
    and mainstream schools.


    1 Education Act 2002,

    Guidance on the
    Education of Children and Young People in Public Care
    Department for Education and Employment, 2000

    Inspecting Independent
    Schools: Framework for Inspection
    , Ofsted,

    Further information

    Removing the Barriers to Achievement, DfES,

    Contact the author

    Preferably e-mail: or go to or Tel:
    01939 290830.

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