Child protection: Independent Safeguarding Authority surrounded by confusion and controversy

14th August 2009 at 01:00
Short of supporters and beset by high-profile detractors, the independent body set up to establish new child protection

Original paper headline: Records stuck as doubts linger over child protection safeguards

Measures must, above all, answer one central question. How will it manage a register of 11.5 million people who work with children?

Few from the world of education can be in any doubt about the confusion and controversy surrounding the establishment of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. Barely a week has passed in the past few months without a national newspaper headline screaming about infringement of civil liberties and the cost of the scheme.

Perhaps the highest-profile critic has been the award-winning author Philip Pullman, who has pulled no punches in his critique of the new child protection systems associated with the changes. Along with other children's writers, the author of His Dark Materials trilogy warned he would stop his regular forays into schools to engage pupils in reading.

Another blow came last week when Sir Michael Bichard, the former civil servant who originally spearheaded the new child protection measures in the wake of the Soham murders, appeared to call for a rethink of the proposed register and seemed to be saying the changes were going too far and that they should be reconsidered.

"We must have proportionate arrangements. We mustn't over-react," he told The Independent.

Confusion and misinformation are circulating about the new vetting and barring procedures, and there are widespread concerns about whether the proposals would work.

Some elements seem relatively straightforward. For example, teachers and all who work with children regularly will have to be vetted. Once an application has been made, this will mean a constantly updated Criminal Records Bureau check on members of the register together with employee referees.

With most enhanced CRB applications currently taking a month, this promises to be a long and arduous process. The current record for a CRB check is 1,767 calendar days. But the ISA estimates that a registration should take no more than seven.

The cost of a one-off registration will be pound;64, and schools and other institutions that look after children or vulnerable adults can check the register online for free.

But grey areas remain. The law dictates that anyone who works in schools frequently must be registered with the ISA. What constitutes "frequently" has yet to be clarified. However, it is understood this will be defined in the next few weeks. And it is possible that Mr Pullman's opposition will influence the decision.

ISA scheme criticised

Some critics disapprove of the scheme because it suggests that all potential child-workers are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Others feel that once the register has bedded in, it will encourage children to see all adults as potential paedophiles. There are also worries that the regulations represent an infringement of civil liberties, in the same way as ID cards.

There are also concerns about how such an enormous register - membership is expected to reach 11.5 million - will be managed.

Tom Foster, of the National Association of Head Teachers' policy, politics and education department, believes the formation of the ISA is a purely political decision that is fraught with danger.

"The chances of this going pear-shaped are legion," he said. "It won't stop the wrong people being registered and they will only be removed later."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is also concerned that the new system will mean "undue delay" to checks.

Kehinde Adeogun, the union's solicitor, said: "We understand and support the procedures, but we don't want a delay to our members taking up employment. The Government is fully aware of our views and the difficulties which might be encountered."

Teaching unions to converge

Unions are set to meet regularly in the autumn to discuss the problems, which may vary across the country as some police forces are more efficient than others at processing CRB forms.

Supporters of the new regulations say they represent an improvement as an individual's records can be automatically updated, whereas the CRB check is not amended over time.

Most fundamental is the argument that a constantly updated register will reduce the chances of another Ian Huntley being employed to work among children.

ISA chief executive Adrian McAllister told The TES: "Despite the furore, I think what gets overlooked are the views of the parents.

"They don't understand what all the fuss is about. They just want to be sure that they can trust the people that are looking after their children."

Certainly, to get the ISA up and running is a mammoth task. A number of the most important decisions are yet to be made, and its many implications are yet to be felt. Whatever the future, it is unlikely to happen quietly.

CRB, ISA and List 99 -related statistics

The ISA replaces the controversial List 99, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families will hand responsibility for vetting to the new organisation.

Of the 248,220 disclosure applications from teachers in 2008, police national computer checks revealed 6,750 criminal convictions.

The Criminal Records Bureau received 252,872 disclosure applications from teachers in 2007. Of these, 6,013 disclosure certificates revealed criminal convictions.

Teachers can appeal against ISA judgments by disputing facts or by defending themselves - for example, if a criminal conviction dates from a long time ago or has no relevance to the job for which they are applying.

The road to better child protection

  • 2002: Soham murders trigger national outrage over child protection
  • 2004: Bichard Inquiry reports, recommending the creation of a national register
  • 2009: Independent Safeguarding Authority takes over the work of List 99
  • July 2010: Child-workers can voluntarily apply to register
  • Nov 2010: Phased introduction of compulsory registration begins
  • 2015: Completion of compulsory registration, with details of an estimated 11.5 million members.

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