Local education authorities have been ordered by the Government to co-operate with private supply teacher agencies over the vetting of temporary staff.
Stephen Byers, the school standards minister has sent a letter to all LEAs, telling them to carry out police checks on prospective teachers on behalf of private supply agencies. He has also told Leeds City Council to retract a false claim about agencies' access to other vital security information.
Mr Byers has demanded assurances that the checks would be carried out, saying that they were "essential to protect children from unsuitable people", regardless of LEAs' reservations about the use of agency supply teachers.
The minister was prompted to act after complaints from Capstan Teachers, a supply agency that employs 1,000 teachers a day, about LEAs that had either refused to give agencies any help or had created difficulties.
Ray Mercer, managing director and joint owner of Capstan, said 16 LEAs had refused to forward security checks to the police, and claimed that two London boroughs, Hammersmith and Fulham and Havering, had demanded Pounds 150 and Pounds 200 respectively to forward such checks.
Mr Mercer singled out Leeds for particular criticism. Not only had Leeds's assistant director of personnel, Ian Metcalfe, recently written to Capstan saying, "This authority does not support the work of agencies such as yours and would not therefore be prepared to carry out criminal vetting checks as you request", but the council had actively recommended that schools didn't use such agencies.
Mr Mercer added that the council had in October falsely told Leeds schools that agencies did not have access to the Department for Education and Employment's List 99 of teachers barred from the classroom.
"Local authorities were using the issue of police checks to back up their desire to maintain a monopoly in supply teachers," claimed Mr Mercer. "They were trying to prevent schools from exercising freedom of choice."
Alex Curling, a spokeswoman for Leeds, said she thought the council's previous lack of support for private supply agencies had been "harsh", and that following the new advice from the DFEE the council would be carrying out criminal background checks on agencies' behalf. There would be a Pounds 12 charge for such checks, with a Pounds 20 per hour charge if extra work was involved.
"We accept that standards in agencies have improved significantly," said a Leeds spokesman. "We do not oppose the use of agency teaching staff."
A spokesman for Hammersmith and Fulham said he could not rule out the possibility that someone in the council had quoted a price of Pounds 150 to carry out police checks, but said the district auditor had recommended a charge of Pounds 10.
A spokesman for Havering failed to confirm or deny whether the council had been making a Pounds 200 charge.