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When Is a School Not a School?
When Is a School Not a School?

If you’ve ever thought of starting your own education initiative, however small, this article is for you.

Avida Hancock avatar
Written by Avida Hancock
Updated over a week ago

Illustration of an Homeschool Collaborative.

“Let’s just start our own school! We’ll enlist our dream teachers and invite parents that share our ethos and values. It will be relaxed and child-centred. We’ll avoid bureaucracy and stay visionary by keeping it small and flexible”

If you are planning to start or join a home school collaborative this article is here to arm you with the knowns and the unknowns.

  • What is the law?

  • What are the emerging precedents?

  • What happens in an OFSTED investigation?

  • What wisdom comes from those who have tried and succeeded?

  • How can we safeguard children and parental freedom of choice?

Home school. Free school. Private school. Alternative school. Micro school. Flexi school … In the next few sections, we are going to define the term ‘school’ in the UK and tell you why the definition is very important indeed.

The pandemic drew an abrupt line at 130 years of state schooling and unbelievably all parents in the entire world experienced home education in some form. Contrary to the sensational news headlines our surveys have revealed that many parents cherished this time. The thoughts tumbled curiously:

"I love seeing more of my child, I don’t like the screen time, I like impromptu walks and talks, I love seeing them outside, what are they learning? Are they really loving this? I didn’t know they were so good at…What if…?"

The consequence: home education is starting to look like a viable and transformative option to many families who would never have previously considered it. In the UK, a survey of 151 Councils in November 2020 by the ADCS estimated a 38% rise in home-schooled children. Primary school applications dropped by 5 % (over 31 thousand pupils) for the 20–21 academic year.

Homeschooling is a misnomer as it is not normally delivered entirely by parents for their own children in their own home. Online tools are only a tiny part of their solution; this demographic tends to be extremely cautious about screen time. Private tutoring is expensive. For most families, homeschooling works best when a significant proportion of learning activities can be shared with a like-minded group, in-person. This way, responsibility and costs are shared, and children benefit from the socialisation of learning with a consistent group. The temptation to start a small ‘school’ is high but many parents are realising that a ‘home school collaborative’ has a number of distinct advantages.

New platforms are becoming available to support homeschool parents, such as Eequ, which makes it extremely simple to set up and run a home education collaborative that does not fall foul of the education legislation.

Over the past two years, Eequ has had the privilege to speak to a large number of education providers, schools and collaboratives. We wanted to share a summary of our experience and conversations, giving you a definitive answer to the question, when is a school not a school.

When is a school not a school?

When it’s a Home Education Collaborative!

And what’s that? Well, quite!

There is no definition of what a ‘Home Education Collaborative’ actually is, and it is very difficult to find clear information online. However, it is essential that parents and teachers understand the law in this area, since running an ‘unregistered school’ is a criminal offence under UK law.

Essentially, in a home education collaborative, parents and their children decide to regularly gather in each other’s homes or a rented premises to cooperatively teach, or coordinate freelance tutors to teach, academic subjects like maths, English, languages, science or broader learning activities like art, sports and drama. Often the collaborative works best with a core provision which is then supplemented through the parent’s initiative with various age-appropriate activities and experiences such as crafts, music and nature studies, which can all be delivered by experienced mentors and small businesses found in the community or on platforms such as Eequ. These groups can have anywhere from five to 50 member families.

A home education collaborative can comprise a vast range of different structures and practices, none of which are clearly defined. However, should the project unwittingly meet the definition of an ‘unregistered school’, it can be reported, inspected by OFSTED, shut down and its founders prosecuted. Therefore, in this article, we have set out the key criteria, pointing out the legal position as we understand it, as well as pitfalls to avoid.

The knowns and unknowns ofHomeschool Collaboratives.

What Drives School Registration Law?

Although it can be frustrating to navigate these guidelines, and information difficult to find, it is vital to realise that the primary driver for legislation in the area of school registration is actually safeguarding. Not curriculum or teaching methods as commonly feared. The paramount duty of the Department for Education and OFSTED is to protect children from things like extremism, dangerous premises, cruelty, sex offenders, suffering and neglect. In 2019 OFSTED shut down 500 schools containing 6000 children.

“Open sewers, rat traps in rooms … exposed electrical work. I’ve seen holes in walls and floors, I have seen locked fire doors, I have seen holes where children have probably punched plaster walls.”

It is a devastating fact that there are 389,000 ‘children in need’ and 643,000 referrals in 2020. But this is just a fraction of all the vulnerable children that live quietly among us. The NSPCC records a monthly average of nearly 6,000 children who call helplines and undergo counselling sessions. There is no data on the children who do not or cannot call.

These heartbreaking facts must surely soften any resentment privately felt about inquiries into unregulated group homeschool provisions however clumsily done. Perhaps it could quench our indignation somewhat when responding to enquiries. Here is a public service whose prime directive is the protection of all children, not just our own, whose wellbeing we are so confident of. Mainstream schools have adopted a practical safeguarding role for vulnerable children. Whether this is appropriate or well done is a separate discussion and what other things we could do as a society is a separate debate. For some children, this is the best we have. Simply more eyes and ears and a safe haven. Unlike some countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain the UK offers parents an extremely wide berth in how they choose to educate “at school or otherwise”. The increase in home education and the blurry guidelines for collaborations means that it is time to enter into a new conversation between DfE, OFSTED and Home Educating parents. We can also look to technology to provide the transparent coordination tools needed to maintain personal freedoms without driving people underground and having the unintended consequence of exposing a small minority of children to risk.

Why are Home Educators nervous about speaking to officials?

Many home educators are offended by the idea that there is an increased safeguarding risk to home educated children. Forums provide numerous anecdotal stories suggesting that a lack of understanding about what home education is and an institutional mindset causes stressful interactions with officials. They report interactions that are overly officious, intrusive and unsupportive. At the extreme end, some home educators report that they have been referred to Children’s Services for reasons as minor as the child being seen playing outside during school hours.

For these reasons, there is a general nervousness on the part of home educators to disclose any information, and a temptation to keep collaboratives ‘under the radar’. They are not confident that they will be treated fairly, they don’t even feel like there are a clear set of rules.

Our contribution to this debate is to attempt to clarify the rules and the reasoning behind the rules. Transparency never damages an endeavour that is just.

How to avoid being classified as a school

When is a school not a school? Eequ’s interpretation of the legislation around the Registration of Independent Schools and how this can relate to a home education collaborative Initiative.

Number of children

One key factor is the number of children involved. Once you go above four children, you are straying into the territory of a school. You can have 4 children learning under one roof with no problem. But the total count includes your own children. So if your two kids and your friends’ two are joined by another child, you go over the threshold, and if you were to repeat this pattern regularly, you might start to seem to officials like a ‘school’. But this alone won’t lead you to be classified as a school, the number of hours is the next important indicator.

Hours with the same teacher

Equally important is the number of hours and how those hours are spread out over the week. The people teaching under one initiative mustn’t have more than 18 hours of contact with the children per week. That includes any non-directed supervision time such as break and lunchtime. Fundamentally, that’s 9 am — 3 pm, three days a week. Even an extra 15 minutes here or there can leave you falling foul of the law.

The recommendation of 3 days a week is deliberate. This is of pivotal importance to OFSTED because it protects children’s safety and parents’ autonomy. It leaves parents free to enrol their children in other educational opportunities, which is seen to create a healthy balance and to be a protective factor against neglect, abuse or radicalisation. Simply put, it means that more than one set of eyes is seeing the child each week, which provides checks and balances against malpractice or poor development.

If you exceed these numbers, days and hours, you might be seen to be running an ‘unregistered school’, which is a criminal offence. If you’re under these limits; you’re not a school at all; you’re a home education collaborative, especially if you can show that you are collaborating with teachers, parents and other educators and sharing responsibility for the provision. Take the word “collaborative” seriously and involve all stakeholders appropriately. This is important because it brings education out of institutions and more into ‘real life’, where learners can be inspired by a wide range of members of their community. You don’t want to technically be a ‘school’ that just keeps itself just under the radar of the law; you want to create a vibrant and relevant learning collaboration, so embrace this aspect of the venture.

So what can you do on the other two days each week?

The key factor is that the collaborative cannot be responsible for providing any other centrally-organised activities on the other two days of the week. So the parents organising the collaborative can’t ‘suggest’ that everyone does horse-riding on a Friday, and then book it and communicate the arrangements to parents. That would be seen as a centrally organised activity.

Instead, the organisers need to be very ‘hands off’ regarding what parents choose to provide for their children on the other two days a week. You might direct parents to a range of other providers where they can choose from a whole host of other learning experiences and courses. Examples might be choir, drama, ecology, yoga, crafts, self-directed learning or community projects. These can be provided at the same premises but there should be no overlap of teachers in either the organisation or the provision. Of course, the child might attend a mainstream school that offers flexible learning.

As our article ‘Should I HomeSchool’ explains, there is no legal definition of ‘full-time’, so some parents may feel that 2, 3 or 4 days of organised group education is enough for their child. Excursions, projects, reading, meditation or long walks in the countryside might be the perfect complement. Not to mention normal daily activities of shopping, cooking, gardening, cleaning, pet care and DIY. From age 14 a paid job or apprenticeship could be ideal!

Another solution might be to partner with another home education group, run by different providers so that another collaborative with a shared ethos and similar style provides the additional activities on the other two days to balance and complement your core programme. Again, this provision would need to be coordinated and booked by individual parents, and not overseen by the core providers, although dialogue between the programmes may be desirable for supporting the development of the children.

How many hours can we use the same venue?

The venue for this additional provision can be the same or different as for the core three days, as long as it is not part of the same initiative. It’s not so much the physical location of the learning that matters; it’s that the leaders are not running a school over more than 18 hours over more than 3 days a week. The two extra days can’t be run by the same people who are providing the learning on the core three days. Many parents do value the consistency of their child being in the same peer group all week, so often many of the children in the group may end up attending the same additional activities as each other, but this can’t be requested, recommended or coordinated by the main providers.

Right, got it. What else do I need to think about?

For OFSTED, alarm bells ring when children fall off the radar and find their way into a system that is unregulated and unregistered. Since home education collaboratives are not schools and don’t, therefore, get officially monitored, it is conceivable that vulnerable children might find themselves at risk. Therefore the adults involved in home education initiatives must recognise that this is simply OFSTED’s duty of care. If everyone can acknowledge concerns and be proactive about safeguarding, this leads to greater respect and understanding on both sides.

Children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC)

As a home education collaborative, you should take special advice from the DfE if you wish to accept any children with an EHC plan, or who have a statement of special educational needs. Children who are vulnerable in this way are seen by OFSTED to need to be in a registered institution where checks and balances are in place and they can be closely monitored.

Safeguarding training

Whilst not mandated by law it is hard not to see the benefit for any adult who has responsibility for other people’s children to have undertaken safeguarding training so they know how to be aware of signs for concern and how to respond to them. It is conceivable that teachers in a home education collaborative may have to deal with a safeguarding situation in at least the same proportion as those who teach in school. Ideally, all the adults involved should have completed safeguarding training, but it makes practical sense for one adult in the collaborative to hold overall responsibility for safeguarding otherwise you could end up with The Story of Everybody, Somebody, Anybody And Nobody.

Disclosure and Barring Service checks

Whilst not mandated by law it makes practical sense for all adults operating under their core provision who might be left alone with another person’s child to arrange for DBS checks. Although this isn’t formally stated in any of the guidance, this step shows a level of responsibility that will go some way towards assuaging OFSTED’s biggest concerns. This is actually quite a difficult and expensive (£60–100) task if you are not ‘employed’ and something that needs to be made easier given the number of independent individuals that would like to work with children. (The topic is deserving of its own article) However, there are umbrella organisations that can help out — your local school is a good starting point.


Discuss public liability insurance with your group. Even if all parties are friends you need to go through the thought experiment of what would happen if a child did have an accident and was left needing financial support. How would you deal with this?

Risk Assessments

Whatever you do with other people, from organising a party to holding a book club, you have a responsibility to do what you can to make sure people don’t get hurt. Conducting a risk assessment for your group can seem like a big job however, it doesn’t need to be complicated or difficult, and in most cases, it is just a matter of common sense. Risk Assessments prompt you to put control measures in place and to distribute responsibilities. Whilst this is not a legal requirement it is a vital exercise if it’s realistic, all collaborators know about it and it’s up to date. Which trees are ok to climb, what equipment can children use? See our article on Risk Assessments. You also need to think about what you’d do in the event of a fire. You need smoke alarms, escape routes, fire extinguishers. You should probably run fire alarm practices from time to time!

First Aid Training

First Aid Training is pretty useful for any parent! Again, it’s not a legal requirement but most collaborations of responsible parents will want one adult with first aid training to be on-site at all times, with access to a first aid kit, which will need monitoring and re-stocking. That’s one reason schools have incident forms; they help keep track of what supplies have been used in a first aid scenario.

Policies and codes of conduct

You might also consider working together on a simple behaviour policy describing the group's expectations for appropriate conduct of children and parents. This makes expectations clear for everyone and avoids future conflict. There is something to be said for having other policies too, for admissions, communication and reporting. And it’s good practice to have forms giving medical and photographic consent and emergency contacts. This is considered sensitive private data and will need to be kept in such a way as to ensure appropriate privacy is maintained. At the bottom line, from a fire and safeguarding perspective, you’ll probably need to demonstrate that you keep a register for each session.

So what happens if you get inspected?

OFSTED may be tipped off that you seem to be running a school, and if they arrive, they’ll come unannounced, and they have right of entry to your premises, like the police, so you cannot refuse them entry! It is infact a criminal investigation.

They aren’t there to speak to the children but they will look at their work, books and learning materials, as well as the premises. They’ll ask to see your register, paperwork, and they’ll want to know your hours and timetable. They can take away hard copies or electronic records and may use body-worn video cameras. They’ll request adjustments and they’ll return to check later that those changes have been made. They will inform the local education authority of their visit and findings.

Sounds scary! So what exactly are OFSTED looking for, or not looking for?

They won’t tell you! They clearly have a set of criteria for what makes an ‘unregistered school’, but they won’t share it with you and you wouldn’t necessarily know if the criteria suddenly changed. We know that home education collaboratives that are following the 18 hours over 3 days structure have been inspected with satisfactory outcomes, so this is a major condition to fall within the relevant criteria. Of course, that might change in the future. Please sign up to our mailing list at Eequ so we can update you as soon as we hear any useful news. We will be trying to open a dialogue with OFSTED on this matter.

Schools need to inform the Local Authority (LA) when they have children deregister, and the Local Authority then contacts those parents to enquire as to what educational provision is being made. We’d therefore recommend that organisers of any home education collaborative proactively contacts the Local Authority when they start up, giving them as much information as possible, so they are fully informed. That way, when parents tell the Local Authority where their children are attending, the Local Authority will link it up with your provision, know what they’re talking about, and won’t be caught on the back foot or be subjected to a stressful criminal investigation.

So might the Local Authority come and visit too?

They might! But the Local Authority doesn’t have a right of entry. They might ask, and you might choose to admit them and show them what you’re doing. But they can’t insist on a home visit. Our advice however would be for any home educating parent to respond to the Local Authority in writing at the earliest opportunity, fully describing the education they are providing. The Local Authority only wants to be reassured that the child is being given a good educational opportunity (see our blog article here about what a ‘good’ education means to the Local Authority). There may be individual officers who may be clumsy or officious in their manner and it’s easy to see how that would rub a conscientious parent up the wrong way but if you look at the brevity of the definitions in the legislation you might feel more at ease.

There are no legal requirements for you as parents educating a child at home or in a collaborative to do any of the following:

  • Acquire specific qualifications for teaching

  • Have premises fitted out like a school

  • Aim for the child to acquire any specific qualifications

  • Teach the National Curriculum

  • Make detailed lesson plans in advance

  • Give formal lessons

  • Mark work done by the child

  • Formally assess progress, or set development objectives

  • Reproduce school type peer group socialisation

  • Match school-based, age-specific standards

In our experience, the vast majority of home educating parents and collaboratives have brief, uneventful interactions with officers (terrible title for the role).

If you happen to use Eequ it becomes super easy for the officers to see the activities enjoyed by the collaboration and could seriously reduce your dialogue (if that is your preference). Simply share a few links.

Our advice for collaboratives — keep communicating and don’t shy away from being in touch with the authorities. Again, it’s best to be transparent, since everyone is working in the best interests of the children and you have nothing to hide but your frustration.

This seems like so much work! Why not just become a registered school?

You could do that! But the hoops that one would have to jump through to satisfy the regulations are extremely arduous and expensive. You’d have to start thinking about policies, compliance, reporting, inspections and huge amounts of paperwork. What this means in practice is that you’d need to employ someone to manage the administration side of things, and you might need to hire additional buildings or facilities. The costs quickly become huge, with none of the benefits being necessarily passed on to the children in the form of better teaching or learning. Effectively you’re then operating a business; a small private school and you start to have to take on more children to cover the costs and your focus changes. You start worrying about ‘bums on seats’ and your concern becomes financial, not educational. If you’ve got your own small setting for your collaborative, you can focus on the ethos and quality of the education being provided, without being swallowed up by the logistics of being an institution.

One of the joys of being a collaborative is the flexibility you have in terms of what you teach, to whom, when and how. The moment you become a school, it is harder to maintain that flexibility. The creativity of trying something new gets stifled by concerns about compliance. Ironically, becoming a registered school is the surest way to lose sight of your educational ethos!

Right! So, how to start my Homeschool Collaborative?

Many groups have at least one experienced teacher on board, giving advice about managing groups of children. Having a regular class of 8 children in your home 6 hours a day is very different from just having your own kids gathered round the kitchen table! You really need to think about the impact on the physical environment of your home. How will it practically work? What rooms and equipment are needed? How will you cope with mud and mess? Storage? Clothing? Food? Who is responsible for cleaning the shared spaces? And for the cost of this? What resources will the children need? Will parents buy exercise books or will the initiative do termly stationery orders and keep a well-stocked cupboard? Who will place this order? How will the finances work and who will calculate this?

You might want to write down your educational ethos; the principles and aims your group believes in and the style of education you’re inspired by. You don’t need to be all things to all people. Better to be really transparent and authentic about who you are and what you’re doing. That way, collaborating parents are realistically informed and can make good judgments about whether it’s a good fit for their child. This prevents the destabilising impact of children coming and going, which can feel to the remaining children like a rejection.

Test the water

It is also possible to take a ‘lean’ approach. You don’t have to form the entire provision to get started with your idea. You can start with one strong offering or popular teacher. Define the activity clearly and see if you can get a regular commitment from a small group. Once this is working well, you can add in another activity and another. Collaborations that use Eequ can test their ideas and coordinate days in as little as 30 minutes by publishing a well laid out listing and sharing the link, which is completely free.

Using technology to be transparent

Why use Eequ for your Home Education Collaborative? Organise a parents initiative and collaborate by using Eequ to keep within OFSTED rules.

Ways to clearly demonstrate that you are not a centrally organised school is to use a platform like Eequ and ask individual mentors and supervisors to take responsibility for their own areas. The provision can be clearly described, the learning value and the hours. Each individual parent can message, book and directly pay the individual teacher or supervisor for their distinct provision, thus demonstrating that it is by the individual parent’s initiative that they have organised and taken responsibility for their own child’s learning. Responsibility is with the parent, not with a central teacher, leader or school administrator.

Collaboratives using Eequ have received positive feedback from OFSTED for the transparency it provides.

In addition to the formal teaching, parents can offer to take responsibility for administrative duties such as supervising transitions between classes, walking children to another location, purchasing books and art supplies etc. Each collaborator would simply need to plainly document this responsibility and participating parents opt-in by booking this as well.

This transparent approach has a secondary advantage for the collaborative. Many good, well-conceived initiatives fizzle out over time through the natural strains of any volunteer group. Some contributors have more time, resources or skills to offer than others. People move away and their circumstances change. It is unrealistic to assume that the enthusiasm of day one will stand the test of time. For children, it is hugely advantageous if it does, so they can deepen their relationships with peers and mentors over time.

A platform tool like Eequ can:

  1. Protect the Vision of the collaborative

  2. Create a fair protocol for payment

  3. Coordinate dates and times

  4. Quickly onboard new teachers and mentors

  5. Allow for experimentation with new curriculum ideas

  6. Provides OFSTED-pleasing tools, like emergency contacts, declaration of safety measures, description of educational value and a portfolio of learning.

Is any help available?

Sure! Eequ can start you off on your journey towards becoming a home education collaborative. We can connect you to a diverse range of academic teachers and extra-curricular mentors. We can help you find your tribe in a community of parents who all want the best for their children. And we can host your provision as a ‘Home Education Collaborative’, enabling you to schedule all the classes and offering you a specifically designed booking platform for parents.

If we are not in your area yet, why not become an Eequ Champion. You can help to make visible all the learning in your community and earn some money as you start using Eequ where you live.

We can even put you in touch with experts who’ve been through all this themselves! Sarah Wilson is an experienced teacher, trainer and education consultant who offers half or whole day workshops for those interested in creating a homeschool initiative. You can find Sarah’s consultancy listed on Eequ here.

Whatever your ‘not a school’ looks like, Eequ is there to not be a school with you.

Eequ is a rebellious new education marketplace that connects inspiring mentors with children and adults.


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