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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