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Monday, 9 September, 2002, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Q & A: Child protection checks
The start of the autumn term was delayed for thousands of pupils because character checks on new staff had not been completed.

Teachers trying to start jobs in schools could not be "deployed to work with children" as the government put it in tougher new guidance, without being vetted first - until, that is, it relaxed the guidance in response to the chaos.

What's going on?

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) was insisting that anyone seeking work in a school is thoroughly vetted beforehand.

Because there is a backlog in the new vetting agency, the Criminal Records Bureau, there was a panic on to try to get teachers' applications for checks rushed through before the start of term - unsuccessfully.

But surely vetting isn't new?

No but it has been tightened up and the hapless Criminal Records Bureau is new.

Under the old system, employers checked with the Department for Education whether someone's name was on the official lists of people deemed unsuitable to work with children.

These long-held lists are the Department for Education's List 99 and the Department of Health's equivalent.

The lists are cross-referenced so a check on one is a check on the other - so the procedure is usually referred to in education circles simply as "a List 99 check".

Employers dealing with a lot of staff had secure internet access so they could run List 99 checks themselves.

In addition, police forces would be asked to check whether someone had a criminal record - a local education authority, for instance, would typically have a designated liaison person.

This could take some time - months, even - so people could start work in the meantime provided they had a satisfactory List 99 check.

It goes without saying that other professional and character references also had to be taken up, and employment history checked - especially to account for any gaps.

What's changed?

The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) was set up as a Home Office agency as a result of the Police Act 1997, though it did not begin work until 11 March this year.

The idea was that the CRB, run by private consultancy Capita, would provide everyone with a quicker "one stop shop" for both List 99 and criminal record checks, issuing what it calls "disclosures".

The "standard disclosure" for people working with children and "vulnerable adults" checks the Police National Computer for any court convictions plus details of any police cautions, warnings or reprimands, and runs a List 99 check.

The "enhanced disclosure" for people "in sole charge of children or vulnerable adults" is the same as a standard disclosure but can also include locally-held police intelligence about an applicant, and obtaining that still takes time.

The CRB accesses the Police National Computer which has details of offences from England and Wales, and copies of relevant Scottish and Northern Ireland criminal records.

Then there's the Protection of Children Act 1999.

The main purpose of that was to give access to the official blacklists to childcare organisations - those providing accommodation, social services or health care to children, or supervising children.

Plus, a huge range of other organisations such as Scouts and Guides, youth clubs, religious organisations and anyone running sporting and leisure activities for children, are now "encouraged" to join the checking system.

Although the checks are free to voluntary workers the administrative cost to organisations can be considerable.

The Central Council for Physical Recreation, for example, which covers some 110,000 voluntary sport clubs, has 30,000 new volunteers a year and estimates that checking them will cost it more than 150,000.

So what happened in March?

The CRB finally began work and with it came new guidance to education employers to make sure that all new staff were checked against List 99 and police records before starting work.

It was immediately apparent that it simply couldn't cope with the volume of requests.

A backlog of applications for standard and enhanced disclosures rapidly built up.

Teacher recruitment agencies were saying they couldn't get people into schools because checks were taking many weeks.

Apart from the sheer volume of requests, it is also thought the bureau had expected most requests to come by phone whereas they were in writing.

The Home Office said that about half the forms that had been received had mistakes on them.

So in May the Department for Education told employers to adopt an "interim arrangement" - in effect, the old system but done through the CRB.

The CRB trawled its backlog of applications for those from classroom staff, and ran a List 99 check on them.

If that was clear, they could be appointed provisionally, pending completion of the full police check.

A letter the department sent to education authorities and teacher agencies made it clear this exemption applied only to "teachers and other classroom staff" - not contractors, ancillary staff such as caretakers, or school governors.

But teachers and teaching assistants were put into schools last term on the basis only of the List 99 checks.

Following the murders of 10 year olds Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, the department scrapped this policy and insisted all new staff must obtain a full disclosure from the CRB before starting work.

Hence the panic, with the CRB bringing in extra staff and working flat out to try to complete checks on teachers before the start of term.

When it failed, and schools had to turn children away because they did not have enough fully-vetted staff, the Education Secertary, Estelle Morris, changed tack again - giving head teachers discretion to let people start work after List 99 checks (now being done by her department, as they used to be), with a full disclosure to follow later.

But schools in Scotland were back already.

Good point. As with most things the system in Scotland is slightly different.

The Scottish Criminal Record Office (SCRO) provides a broadly equivalent service, called Disclosure Scotland, which also started work this spring - apparently without any problems.

A Scottish Executive spokesperson said: "We are not aware of any backlog or problems in this area."

As elsewhere, all teachers in Scotland's local authority schools have to be registered with the General Teaching Council Scotland and about 90% of independent school staff also are registered.

Prior to registration the council carries out a Scottish Criminal Records Office check.

Local authorities run similar checks on support staff in schools.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Scottish Executive is only now setting up a blacklist, by means of a Bill to be put to the Edinburgh parliament later this year.

Announcing it more than a year ago, the Education Minister, Jack McConnell, said: "The index will help to close the loophole which allows some unsuitable adults to pose a risk to children through the respect gained in a work environment."

And Northern Ireland?

Since 1990 the Department of Education for Northern Ireland has required a criminal record check on anyone before they are appointed to a position giving "substantial access to children".

This applies to employees and volunteers, whether full-time or part-time.

The list of posts covered is extensive: all professional, ancillary, administrative and clerical staff employed by all state and independent schools and further education institutions, guidance centres, education and library boards, the youth and music services - even home tuition teachers, drivers and school crossing patrol staff.

In addition the department records cases of misconduct by teachers, which takes account of not only court convictions but dismissals and even press reports.

It considers "withdrawing recognition" from the teacher concerned.

When someone seeks a teaching post the department checks this record, and the lists maintained elsewhere in the UK.

What about teachers from overseas?

Not covered by the CRB.

MPs were told in July by a Home Office minister that the bureau "is not in a position directly to obtain information from other countries".

It would "offer guidance in due course to employers about the availability of criminal record checks in a range of foreign countries, to enable an enquiry to be made to the appropriate authority".

The Department for Education says it is up to schools or education authorities to contact their local police, who would then contact their opposite numbers in the teacher's home country to seek a criminal records check.

In some countries, individuals can obtain a "certificate of good conduct" or the equivalent - but practice varies considerably.

In the Republic of Ireland, there are no arrangements for making criminal records checks in connection with child protection - except for fostering and adoption.

Nor are there good conduct certificates.

Back to England: these checks are for new staff - what about existing staff?

The Department for Education says schools or education authorities should not seek retrospective checks on existing staff or governors unless they have grounds for concern about someone's suitability to work with children.

Nor should people be re-checked at regular intervals unless they change employer, have a break in service of three months or more, or move to a post "with significantly greater responsibility for children".

Are university staff checked?

No. In education, the rules apply to those working with "children" - that is, aged 18 and under.

The government decided there was no need to extend the vetting process to the higher education sector - even though it was pointed out that increasing numbers of teenagers go to universities for such things as summer schools.

For that matter, anyone can set up as a private tutor and invite children into their home on a one-to-one basis, without any regulation.


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