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Disclosure checks hit hopes for under-16s

Further education colleges have been put on notice that they face a potential legal minefield as rising numbers of under-16s are encouraged to take vocational courses in a college environment.

The latest warning has come from Professor Stewart Brymer, of Dundee law firm Thorntons WS, who is alerting the sector to new legal duties and obligations as an adult-only environment opens its doors to younger students.

"There is a drive from government for colleges to include more school-age students but no one has really stood back and said who is responsible for whom in that environment," Professor Brymer said.

Now MSPs have raised the spectre that under new child protection regulations all FE students might have to be vetted because they will be in close contact with under-16s.

Jane Polglase, policy manager with the Association of Scottish Colleges, said: "Colleges would be extremely concerned if there was a suggestion that students, other than those who are doing relevant courses such as childcare, had to face disclosure checks.

"This would be crippling to Scotland's economy because it would seriously deter many of the broad range of people who come to colleges."

The potential nightmare scenario of blanket police checks, as well as new legal obligations being placed on college managements, arises from two sources: the likely arrival of much larger numbers of school-age students in what has hitherto been treated as an adult-only environment; and the imminent implementation of the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act - regulations which have been described in some quarters as the final legacy of the Dunblane tragedy.

While most colleges and universities now insist that members of staff are checked by police, the current position is that it is up to a college's management to assess the risk of allowing under-16s to come into contact with older students and to judge whether supervisory systems are sufficiently robust to offer a fair degree of child protection.

Further guidance is expected from the Scottish Executive on implementation of the new Act. However, its evidence to the Scottish Parliament's education committee has already heightened fears. MSPs were told: "The Executive advises that any adult who is in substantial, regular and unsupervised contact with children should be subject to an Enhanced Disclosure check before working with children. This includes volunteers and parent helpers in schools."

According to some interpretations, the reference to "any adult" could mean any student aged 18 or over. Some within the FE sector are known to be concerned that blanket disclosure checks will simply drive more young people into the arms of private training providers or local authority vocational workplace training.

But, taking the argument to its logical extreme, any employers offering workplace experience to students aged 16 or under may also be required to carry out the same enhanced disclosure check on employees who might be supervising them.

The question of who is deemed to be "in loco parentis" would, according to Professor Brymer, have been far simpler had colleges remained under local authority control as they were pre-1992.

Now that colleges have been incorporated, this is something of a grey area.

What about the care and welfare of an S3 or S4 pupil taking a hairdressing or car mechanics course? Is it the school they are enrolled at, the local authority, or the college management?

Colleges will now have to take on new duties such as protecting youngsters from physical harm on college premises; ensuring that students who are too young or vulnerable to look after themselves do not leave the premises unattended; and ensuring safe use of the internet - all new territory for establishments which do not have guidance or pastoral care systems similar to schools.

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