With an increase in regulatory inspections reported by schools in recent months, we are often contacted by schools expressing concern at the possibility of a Home Office inspection.
Although Home Office inspections have now earned a reputation for being somewhat alarming, given their potentially far reaching negative consequences, in our experience adequate preparation can serve to allay concerns and provide reassurance.
This article sets out four key areas a school can consider in order to get ahead on preparing for a potential inspection. Good licence management forms a considerable component of this process.
1. Anticipating an inspection - common triggers
Whilst the Home Office has discretion to inspect a Child Student Sponsor without cause, and therefore it is prudent to be prepared for an inspection at any time, inspections are more commonly triggered by Home Office concerns over compliance. Common circumstances in which the Home Office inspect include examples of:
- Where a School has failed to meet the Educational Oversight Requirement.
- Where a School has been involved in a merger or de-merger.
- Where a School has failed their most recent Basic Compliance Assessment.
- Where a School has been subject to adverse media attention.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list, however, it provides a helpful glimpse into the manner in which the Home Office operates when assessing their approach to inspections.
Importantly, it is always beneficial for a school to identify a likely trigger for an inspection as and when it arises, as this provides the school with an opportunity to identify, tackle and address likely areas of concern for the Home Office ahead of time. This also gives relevant individuals within a school (including the authorising officer) an opportunity to prepare and brief themselves accordingly – the Home Office’s interview with such individuals is often a critical point on which the outcome of an inspection turns. Finally, a review and audit of existing systems and processes, particularly those which relate to a school’s sponsor licence, is always recommended.
In other words, if you anticipate that you may be inspected on the basis of any of these triggers it would be wise to consider robustly preparing for an inspection as soon as possible, and in any event ahead of being approached by the Home Office.
2. Are you able to evidence that the school has taken steps to ensure all of its students have the right to study in the UK?
Schools are often taken aback by what is a common request from the Home Office, namely, demonstrating that the school has taken all necessary steps to confirm that its entire student population has the right to study in the UK, in line with the Home Office guidance and requirements.
This, in our experience, forms an important part of many Home Office inspections and the Home Office would typically expect schools to be able to provide documents such as spreadsheets with names of pupils and other critical information relating to their status in the UK and, where relevant, details of their visas and passports. Where a school cannot produce this information in a format acceptable to the Home Office, they would expect the school, at the very least, to have the information necessary to compile such documents at their fingertips.
By way of an example, to easily compile such a spreadsheet a school will need to have records of the immigration status of all its pupils. This can then be sorted into immigration categories (eg those who require a visa to study and those who do not). The immigration status, and linked right to study, of each pupil should therefore be confirmed on enrolment and up-to-date records of the status of those with time-limited visas should be kept throughout the duration of their studies at the School.
If you anticipate a Home Office inspection and do not have access to the data necessary to compile a list of non-sponsored students and their right to study, then our experience is that this list can be compiled on an urgent basis. The wording of the communication with parents’ requesting information relating to the immigration status of their children is however, critical, particularly as such a request to parents ought to take into account data protection requirements. We can, of course assist with the wording of any such requests to parents.
Finally, it is perhaps not surprising that schools find this aspect of their sponsor licence duties particularly challenging for several reasons, including that the Home Office guidance on this requirement and on how schools can practically discharge this obligation is opaque; and that different steps need to be taken in relation to different groups of students. For example, the Home Office requires a specific set of documents to be held on file for sponsored students, a different set of documents to be held on file for non-sponsored students but who are nonetheless subject to visa requirements, and different information to be kept in relation to students who do not require visas to be able to study in the UK (for example, British and Irish nationals and in some cases, European nationals).
3. Does the authorising officer, and any relevant Level 1 Users, have access to all of the relevant systems?
The Home Office often request sight of selected pupil files during an inspection. The purpose of the request is to ensure that the Child Student Sponsor is complying with its record-keeping duties with reference to its sponsored and non-sponsored students. A school is not required to hold all the information specified in the Student Sponsor Guidance on one paper file but, if you are using a number of online systems to manage student records, it is essential both that the authorising officer, and any relevant Level 1 Users, have access to the relevant systems (for example, attendance records of sponsored students) and that they are able to proficiently navigate these.
The reality is, that on the day of inspection the Home Office will expect the authorising officer, or a Level 1 User to whom the task has been delegated, to show and prove that all requested documents relating to the selected student file can be produced almost instantaneously and with minimal fuss.
Top tip: even where a Level 1 User performs this task it is still important for the authorising officer to understand the processes involved and to be able to articulate these in their interview with Home Office Inspectors.
4. Does the authorising officer have a robust understanding of the Student Sponsor Guidance?
As alluded to above, a key part of the Home Office inspection process is an interview with the Authorising Officer during which Home Office inspectors are likely to ask a wide range of questions relating to the management of the School’s Child Student Sponsor Licence. By way of an example, popular topics for questioning include:
- The school’s processes for managing the expiry of individual students’ visas.
- The authorising officer’s understanding of their reporting obligations and what circumstances trigger such obligations; and
- How the School is monitoring the immigration status of EEA nationals.
In order to answer these questions, it is essential that the Authorising Officer has an excellent understanding of the school’s duties as a sponsor and how these are discharged in practice, using the school’s systems. Up to date knowledge of the Student Sponsor Guidance, including any recent changes (which, unhelpfully to schools, are frequent) is essential.
In our experience schools often find “mock” Home Office inspections to be helpful and a good test of how much work needs to be done in this area.
In summary, when it comes to Home Office inspections preparation – which aligns with day-to-day good management of a school’s Child Student Sponsor Licence – is key.
Please note this content was originally published in the Spring 2022 edition of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA) termly magazine, “The Bursar’s Review”, and is reproduced with the kind permission of ISBA.
If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Elena Hinchin, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2022