Editor's comment

27th January 2006 at 00:00
If Ruth Kelly was hoping to see the back of the drama over sex offenders in education following last week's announcement in Parliament, she must think again. While tougher checks on those applying for jobs went some way to appeasing critics of government policy, they have reopened several cans of worms in colleges. One pressing issue that should have been obvious to Ms Kelly is that adult students constantly rub shoulders with under-16s.

Maybe she forgot that measures to protect almost 100,000 14 to 16-year-olds in colleges are woefully inadequate. Maybe she was not reminded of research evidence showing three in four colleges are concerned about their ability to meet minimum statutory requirements for young people.

Maybe she was ignorant of the fact - when she spoke to our reporter this week - that separate college centres for 14-16-year-olds cannot be built in sufficient numbers in time to meet the Government's curriculum reform targets, if students are to be segregated.

The problem is one of inconsistency. While giving categorical assurances to schools over tighter checks, Ms Kelly cannot then pass the buck in colleges to the governing bodies. She still needs to give an assurance along the following lines: "All vulnerable children, wherever they are taught, will be protected in equal measure." That demands the same checks on all adults, not just teachers.

Yet again, colleges appear to be included in ministerial pronouncements as an afterthought, if at all. However, with the new regulations on the vetting of sex offenders applying to teach, Ms Kelly has a chance to make amends.

This issue goes well beyond the issue of an identifiable group of pupils splitting their time between school and college - and, increasingly, the workplace. How far do legal requirements on staff and managers stretch beyond the school gates when pupils are sent to learn elsewhere? Moreover, colleges have a high proportion of disaffected, disturbed and vulnerable youngsters, many from care homes.

Children's charities, including the national Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, are understandably concerned about the extent to which colleges have been over-looked. Maybe Ms Kelly is unaware of the extent of the lobbying on such issues.

Solid guidance for colleges has been drawn up by FE organisations - most notably the Association of Colleges - within the limits of what they can do. But more must be done. The multi-agency approach to vetting promised by the Government must extend to colleges and cover all adults, including students. Otherwise, children most at risk will not get the protection they deserve.

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