Ministers are being urged to help colleges protect teenagers after a principal discovered a long-standing adult student had a conviction for viewing child pornography.
The call comes as Doncaster College deals with an internal appeal from Nigel Oldfield, 46, who has been studying at the college for four years and is fighting to save his place after it was discovered he has a conviction for downloading indecent photographs and videos of children on his home computer.
Rowland Foote, an experienced principal who previously ran Bournmouth and Poole College, decided in April to remove Mr Oldfield after becoming aware of his past. But the Association of Colleges (AoC) has called for better guidelines to help colleges.
The case comes to light two years after FE Focus challenged Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, on the Government's position, particularly in the light of the "increased flexibility programme" which places 14 to 16- year-olds in colleges part-time. She responded by saying her department was considering separate centres for under-16s where they can be kept in a "secure environment." She said: "Their safety is something we are very aware of."
The AoC says legal restrictions and bureaucratic delays make it impossible to conduct routine background checks on adult students. It is calling for better guidance to protect all under-19 students.
Evan Williams, AoC's head of employment policy, said: "Colleges take the safety of all students very seriously and carry out Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks on staff and, where appropriate, on students whose courses require checks, for example, on childcare and social care courses. Colleges cannot, of course, check all students (either legally or practically) but do work to minimise risk.
"Government and agencies, such as the Learning and Skills Council, have issued guidance on duties of care for younger students but there is scope for more focus on how colleges can best manage the mix of adult and young learners."
Child protection was one of the key concerns of one of the most outspoken critics of the Government's drive to place more 14 to 16-year-olds in colleges. David Collins, principal of South Cheshire College, says the issue is evidence of this policy being introduced with too little thought by ministers about the repercussions.
He said a degree of risk is inevitable in these circumstances but college managers and principals need clear guidelines about how they ensure the best possible levels of protection for 14 to 19s.
Mr Collins, now president of the AoC, said: "My reservations about 14-16 were to a considerable degree based on the fact that thousands of adults, none of whom have had a CRB check, are in the college and there is nothing you can do about it. This is really an example of where, with 14-16, the practicalities have never really been worked through. The question is how far do you go? Do you for example have separate toilets for 14-16s?
"We are all crossing our fingers and saying, `Let's hope it doesn't happen here'."
He refused to join the initial rush for 14 to 16-year-old students but is now considering doing so in a way that keeps them separate from post-16 students - partly for their safety and partly to preserve the more exclusive adult atmosphere for post compulsory students.
A spokeswoman for the Association for College Management said: "Of course the safety and well-being of students is paramount but there are individuals who want a fresh start and put their conviction behind them. One way might be for a probation officer to work with a college to monitor the individual, and ensure the choice of course was not inappropriate."
Mr Foote at Doncaster said: "My role is to ensure the protection of children. I haven't been involved in the appeals process because I made the initial exclusion."
Leading article, page 4.