The suspicious characters in the Department for Education
Teacher vetting scandals are a crisis of the government's own making.
Would you want your child to be taught by a paedophile? No. Even if they’d never actually molested a child, only been caught looking at child pornography? No. What about if they’d had an affair with a 16-year-old pupil, considered by both parties to be consensual? No. What about somebody who had never been convicted of doing anything untoward, but looks a bit funny and attracts certain rumours? No, no and no! After all, when it comes to children, you can never be too careful….
That’s why, when there is even a hint of a scandal about potential paedophiles working anywhere near schools, parents are the worst people to ask about it. When thinking about whom they trust with their children, ‘big picture’ questions such as teacher shortages, proven guilt, false allegations and the difference between thought and deed tend to pale into insignificance compared with the more fundamental concern to protect your child from having any contact with a paedophile, ever.
So it is hardly surprising that parents are up in arms to find that a small number of individuals on the UK Sex Offenders Register have been cleared to work in schools, and that some are baying for the blood of those who made the decisions about these individuals. What is shocking is the extent to which politicians and the media have fuelled the hysteria around this issue, seemingly prepared to adopt the most irrational, impractical and unjust proposals to show how very much they care about children’s safety.
None of this posturing will guarantee that children are any more protected from paedophiles than they currently are. What it will do is sully further the climate surrounding teaching and teachers, making all of those who want to work with children into objects of suspicion and distrust.
Ruth Kelly is not the first UK education secretary to be dogged by controversy over systems of vetting people wishing to work with children. Then education secretary Estelle Morris became embroiled in a similar row following the murders of Soham schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in August 2002, and the arrest of their school caretaker Ian Huntley as a prime suspect. In May 2002, the government had introduced a new national system of vetting in the form of the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), designed to replace the previous system of local police checks. When the private company charged with running the CRB could not get the system in place at the start of the new school term, Morris announced an ‘interim arrangement’ whereby schools and support staff would start work pending the checks (1). In the post-Soham climate of fear, this erupted into a scandal that left Morris badly burned (2).
Three-and-a-half years on, it’s Ruth Kelly’s head on the block – and the implicit accusation is the same. Estelle Morris took the pragmatic decision that teachers had to be able to start work at the beginning of the new term, and that the risk to children while the checks were being completed was negligible. Ruth Kelly’s department seems to have made a similarly pragmatic decision – that given the shortage of teachers today, and the fact that all sexual offences are not of equal magnitude, a selection of individuals on the Sex Offenders Register should not automatically be included on the ‘List 99’ blacklist that would prevent them from working with children ever again.
In their own terms, both of these pragmatic decisions were probably right. To prevent new teachers, dinner ladies, caretakers and so on from starting work just in case the Criminal Records Bureau threw something up would be both inefficient and unfair, placing new staff under the spotlight of suspicion just because they were new. In Kelly’s case, as Rob Lyons argued last week on spiked, the problem arises from the existence in the first place of a blanket Sex Offenders Register, designed to lump in the most depraved child rapist with somebody who has received a police caution for viewing child pornography (see Time to tear up the Sex Offenders Register?, by Rob Lyons).
For government ministers, the fact that society needs more teachers and others willing to work with children means that it is impossible to do as many have demanded, and blacklist everybody remotely suspected of anything dodgy involving children. What government ministers often fail to recognise, however, is that we live in a climate where such pragmatic, rational decisions are scarcely permitted – and that they themselves played a significant role in helping to create this climate.
So in the hysteria following the Soham murders, the Department for Education first announced that the ‘interim arrangements’ made to allow new teachers and other school staff to start working pending completion of the full CRB checks would cease, and the new staff would just have to wait to be cleared. It then had to recant this decision at the start of term, faced with schools having to turn pupils away or close altogether and when Estelle Morris realised she had no idea how long it would take for the vetting to be completed (3).
Following Soham, the government set up the Bichard Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the murders, which led to a report in 2004 calling for even more checks on those applying to work with children, including a national police intelligence system to share information between forces about individuals suspected, but not convicted, of having committed an offence; a social services database to log all those suspected of abuse; a government register of those wishing to work with children; and for a further tightening of the already-stringent vetting procedures.
Prompted by one terrible fact that emerged from the Soham inquiry – that killer Ian Huntley had previously been suspected of sexual offences, but never convicted – the Bichard Inquiry summed up how ‘hard cases make bad law’, calling for a system branding those working with children as guilty until proven innocent. For Bichard, to be suspected of abuse must surely be enough to bar somebody from working with children for life (see After Soham: taking liberties, by Jennie Bristow).
The Department for Education under Ruth Kelly is discovering the price of this emotive opportunism. At a time when even a rumour is deemed in official quarters to be grounds for barring people from teaching, it does seem incongruous that admitting to looking at child porn is considered by government ministers to be okay. The decision to allow a man convicted of possessing indecent images of young boys to work only in all-girls’ schools seems frankly mad. But that is the problem with the bad law resulting from hard cases – the exercise of child protection measures becomes as arbitrary as the exercise of criminal justice.
As some have noted, the more the vetting bandwagon rolls on, with calls for people to be barred from working with children at the merest whiff of a rumour, the more the possibility of witch-hunts and miscarriages of justice looms on the horizon. Obviously, anybody working with children is open to false allegations of abuse – particularly now, when the heightened suspicion surrounding teachers invites the use of abuse allegations as a weapon. Obviously, faced with the choice between a police caution and a lengthy, uncertain, costly, destructive criminal trial, individuals are under pressure to admit to misdemeanours, even if they did not commit them. Obviously, schools are unwilling to risk employing individuals who might carry the taint of suspicion, even if it is unfounded.
These are all very serious problems for individuals caught on the wrong side of the desire to protect children from potential paedophiles, at whatever the cost to liberty and justice. But the biggest problem is the way that those who work with children are branded, as a group, as suspect characters in need of constant monitoring and vetting. This does not reassure parents, or keep children safe. It simply provides a further deterrent to potential teachers, and shrouds existing teachers in suspicion. That really is bad for our kids.
So what does the education secretary, caught on the defensive, choose to do? She announces a review of the employment of sex offenders over the past 30 years, thereby opening another can of worms and completing the picture of schools as a breeding ground for perverts and paedophiles. Now that is a reason for heads to roll.
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