Disclosure checks to be extended

6th November 2009 at 00:00
But doubts raised over whether wider vetting will really protect more children

Original paper headline: Disclosure checks to be extended to cover more parents and tutors

A requirement for parents involved in school exchanges to be disclosure-checked could be introduced into Scotland next year, raising fears that the cost and bureaucracy could deter schools from taking part.

The Scottish Government is to include host parents in its forthcoming consultation on draft secondary legislation related to the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (PVG) Act, which comes into force next year.

English legislation enacted after the Soham murders already requires parents to be vetted, and headteachers have reported a significant impact on school exchange programmes.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said the benefits of home exchanges outweighed the risks, but nothing ever outweighed the impact on a young person who was abused. "That's why it is difficult to find the right balance," he added.

It was essential to minimise the bureaucracy and costs attached to vetting procedures, Mr Cunningham continued. Some schools had already stopped doing exchanges because of the red tape involved in doing risk assessments.

The Government says it also plans to bring private tutors into the disclosure process in the PVG Act by creating a "membership scheme" which allows parents and personal employers to carry out checks.

Under current arrangements, there is no system available for parents to carry out such checks, although a pilot programme is being run by Tayside police which allows individuals to check out concerns they may have about a person with significant access to their children.

Chief Inspector Eric Knox, who is head of the unit running the Tayside scheme, said that, in its first month, it had not received any enquiries relating to private tutors or music instructors. Instead, most concerns related to estranged couples where one had a new partner and the other was concerned about that person being involved with their children.

The Tayside pilot began in September and is due to run until May. Justice Secretary Kenny Macaskill is expected to decide at that stage whether to roll out the scheme across the country.

Child-protection measures have come under particular scrutiny in recent weeks, following a number of high-profile cases:

  • Vanessa George, the nursery worker in Plymouth who has admitted abusing young children in her care;
  • The conviction of James Rennie, former chief executive of LGBT Youth and a former secondary teacher, and Neil Strachan, a computer engineer, who together led Scotland's biggest-ever paedophile ring;
  • David Wilson, the former head of Auchmuty High in Glenrothes, who pled guilty last week to downloading nearly 3,000 images of child pornography, and was caught by police in the same Operation Algebra that uncovered the activities of Rennie and Strachan.
    • While these cases have led to calls for tougher measures to protect children, none of the individuals, apart from Strachan, had a previous conviction for child abuse and would have been caught under disclosure checks.

      Judith Gillespie, development manager for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said there had been a "complete failure" to analyse the Soham case, in which two 10-year-old girls were murdered by school caretaker Ian Huntley.

      The subsequent Bichard Inquiry, whose findings set in train many of the recent laws on vetting and barring, was based on a false assumption, said Mrs Gillespie.

      "Soham was an accident of time - an awful chance. You can't protect kids against `awful chance' things," she said.

      Most of the worst cases of child abuse were committed either by family members or family friends. Carrying out widespread disclosure checks was not only very expensive but risked creating a false sense of security, Mrs Gillespie added.

      "It might be more sensible to spend a comparable amount of money on targeting seriously risky areas where children are totally dependent on adults looking after them, such as children's homes, or putting more money into social workers so they can work better with vulnerable families," she said.

      She also claimed the Scottish Government's disclosure requirements were "completely at odds" with its policy of encouraging parental involvement. A Glasgow primary halted a paired reading scheme involving parents after inspectors told the headteacher the parents required disclosure checks.

      A spokesman for HMIE said there was no mandatory requirement for a disclosure check on adults where there was teacher supervision.

      "However, when a parentgrandparenthelper might have access to children in an unsupervised situation, HMIE would look for an enhanced disclosure check in order to be assured that there was a check against the Disqualified from Working with Children List, convictions and police intelligence," he added.

      Tutors' check-up

      Qualified teachers, who are automatically vetted as part of their registration with the General Teaching Council of Scotland, are increasingly reluctant to do private tuition because of their growing workload, according to Valerie Kemp, a 21-year-old law student in Aberdeen. This has left the tutoring market more open to unqualified tutors, she claims, and she has set up a "tutor check" service to run the rule over qualifications, disclosure and references. Her company, Tutors' Alliance, offers free advice to parents and pupils.

      As a tutor of English, French and Latin, she had become "increasingly concerned about the safety of children and the quality of tuition being provided", Ms Kemp told The TESS.

      It was "scandalous", she said, that tutors were not subject to formal or legal regulation or disclosure checks.

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