Soham lessons not yet learned

Ofsted has criticised schools and councils for failing to keep proper records of suitability checks on staff. Clearer government guidance could ease the problem, reports Amy Taylor

Schools and councils came in for strong criticism from Ofsted last week after the regulator found they were failing to keep adequate records on the suitability of school staff to work with children (Schools to face tougher scrutiny of staff vetting after critical report, 22 June).

Ofsted found that, although schools and councils said they had carried out List 99 and Criminal Records Bureau checks on staff, many could not prove this.

The report also raised concerns about the small number of head teachers and governors who had undertaken training on safer recruitment, even though this was one of the key recommendations of Sir Michael Bichard’s report into the Soham murders.

In response to the Ofsted report, the government announced plans to update guidance on safe recruitment practices for schools, which will lay out their responsibility for keeping a single record of all checks.

Too much paperwork
Despite the findings, some campaigners argue that blame should be laid at the government’s door for not providing clarity on the correct procedures for checks on staff, while others have raised fears about excessive bureaucracy.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says many schools will have assumed that local authorities keep the records, and in many areas that is the case. He argues schools should not have to duplicate these.

“Schools thought what was important was carrying out the checks and not to keep the records. I think it’s absolutely right that everybody should be assured that all employees are clear but this should be done with the minimum bureaucracy.”

Emily Arkell, policy adviser (safeguarding) at children’s charity the NSPCC, agrees that the guidance is needed, and that schools need more support from government to carry out their responsibilities.

She says this should involve face-to-face briefings with schools and councils, along with training, rather than simply posting out guidance to them.

Bichard’s report recommended that all head teachers and governors should receive training on recruiting safely after it emerged that the school that employed Ian Huntley had not followed the correct procedures.

A Safer Recruitment online training package was launched a year ago and all heads plus one governor from every maintained and independent school, and two employees from each council, were given free access.

However, Ofsted found that at the time of its survey in January and February this year, just 2,595 out of about 50,000 eligible people had accessed the training and 847 had completed it.

It called for head teachers and governors to be held to account for not carrying out the training and for the Department for Education and Skills to be more insistent that they did so. But Arkell says this is insufficient and the training should be mandatory.

Campaigners agree that the revised government guidance is likely to improve the current situation, but Andrew Webb, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services Children and families committee, says that gaps will remain.

Leadership needed
Last week, the government sent out a letter to all schools, colleges and chairs of local safeguarding children boards outlining its plans.

Webb says the letter also requires directors of children’s services to offer leadership in ensuring the correct records are kept. But he says that, although directors can do this in state schools, they have no way of ensuring that those in the independent sector are following the right procedures.

He adds that the government’s push for more state schools to become independent of local authorities, through trust status, may also cause problems.

Webb says: “With the move towards trust schools I’m worried that we are going to have fragmentation which will lead to difficulties ensuring there’s a standardised quality assurance system.”

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