Treating teachers like paedophiles
We should be suspicious of the UK government's new vetting procedures for adults who work with children.
The new school term in the UK has begun in chaos. Delays in the vetting of teachers, classroom assistants and other adults working in schools have resulted in some schools staying closed for extra days, others keeping certain teachers out of classrooms, some school buses cancelled…and lots and lots of criticism for the government.
The government deserves to be sent to the bottom of the class for creating this almighty mess. But in focusing on the current vetting crisis as a bureaucratic cock-up, most of the criticisms miss the point.
The establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), the agency responsible for running these checks, was a politically motivated project, feeding off the worst New Labour mix of posturing, pragmatism and political scaremongering. Its outcome will be to fuel further distrust between parents, teachers and children, and create a climate in which those who work with children are treated with suspicion simply for doing their jobs.
The CRB was set up as a result of the Police Act of 1997. It was designed to replace the previous vetting system, where employers of teachers and so on would check new employees against the Department for Education’s ‘List 99’, of people deemed unsuitable to work with children. The police would then check for a criminal record. Because this was a time-consuming process, employees who had been ‘cleared’ by List 99 could start work while waiting for the result of the police check. The idea of the CRB was to bring these processes together, creating a kind of one-stop vetting shop (1).
The CRB was only partly a product of New Labour’s obsession with efficiency and centralised bureaucracy. Above all it was a political gesture, set up not because of any major problems with the old vetting system, but because of a desire to tap into public concerns about child safety and abuse. Since the CRB began work earlier this year, political posturing has continued to supersede practicality – with the result that, in the short term at least, the CRB is not even efficient.
Go to the CRB website, and you are greeted with a quote from UK home secretary David Blunkett: ‘The role of the Criminal Records Bureau is to reduce the risk of abuse by ensuring that those who are unsuitable are not able to work with children and vulnerable adults.’ The background information explains that the CRB was conceived ‘largely in response to public concern about the safety of children and vulnerable adults’ (2).
In other words, back in 1997, the new New Labour government realised that the potential abuse of young people by those working with them in a position of trust was an issue of public concern, and set out to show that it would do something about it. No matter that there was no actual abuse crisis. No matter what the long-term consequences would be of putting the spotlight on vetting people who work with children.
The previous vetting procedures – involving an official government list of people deemed unsuitable to work with children – seem pretty stringent, and there are doubts over whether the new system will be more effective. The immediate problem with reorganising the system through the CRB was, as headteachers and others were warning months ago, that this new body would struggle to cope with the sheer volume of work (3).
The CRB’s failure to cope was apparent back in May, two months after it started work. Clearly mindful of its other priority, of boosting teacher numbers, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) told employers to adopt an ‘interim arrangement’ – effectively the old system, a List 99 clearance pending a police check. New Labour’s pet project was given a swift dose of pragmatism, which kind of undermined the whole thing, raising the question of how important is it for new staff to be fully vetted anyway.
But in August, Soham 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered, and school caretaker Ian Huntley and teaching assistant Maxine Carr were arrested. With the start of school term looming, the government immediately called a halt to interim arrangements and demanded that all new staff must obtain full clearance before starting work.
There has been no indication that the employment of Huntley or Carr involved a vetting failure. And it was obvious that the DfES’s turnaround would have a disastrous impact upon schools. But again, rational considerations were overridden by political scaremongering.
Feeding off the Soham tragedy and the parental fears that it sparked, the government clearly decided that the most important thing to do was show that it would do all it could to prevent such a thing ever happening again. (Even though no number of vetting procedures can prevent a first-time sex offender.) That’s why there is chaos in the schools, with 8600 background checks on teachers still outstanding at the beginning of this week (4).
What, after all this politicking, is the upshot of the new CRB? Forget the immediate timetabling problems facing schools that have been focused on by most critics, and just think about the impact upon parents, children and the teachers themselves.
Innocent staff are kept in a moral quarantine, treated with suspicion before they are proven innocent. Children pick up on the possibility that they might be shut in a room with a childmolester – and no doubt, when the new term really does get underway, we’ll see more than a few paedophile jibes hurled by pupils at those teachers who are currently being vetted. The recently resolved Shieldfield Nursery scandal, in which two nursery nurses suffered nine years of fear and disgrace after being falsely accused of abuse, should be a stark reminder of how destructive such a climate of heightened suspicion is (5).
Far from these convoluted vetting procedures helping, as the CRB claims, to make society ‘feel safer’, parents have been ushered into a new term made painfully aware of the potential dangers posed to their offspring by seemingly dodgy members of staff. Even though the only thing that makes the majority of people who work with young children seem dodgy is the fact that they are vetted, supervised and suspected.
To paraphrase the old slogan: those who teach, can’t.
After Soham – mourners and ‘the mob’, by Mick Hume
Turning tragedy into trivia, by Jennie Bristow
Child protection questions, by Jennie Bristow
spiked-issue: Parents and kids
(1) Q & A: Child protection checks, BBC News, 1 September 2002
(2) See the Criminal Records Bureau
(3) Q & A: Child protection checks, BBC News, 1 September 2002
(4) Buses cancelled in vetting delay, BBC News, 3 September2002
(5) Child protection questions, by Jennie Bristow
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