Foreign children's welfare at risk

9th August 1996 at 01:00
A legal loophole allows paedophiles to look after language school pupils. The safety of the 175,000 children under 16 who visit this country every year to attend private English-language summer schools is being endangered because of a loophole in the law.

Nothing stops people who have been placed on List 99 - those deemed unsuitable to work with children because of convictions for abuse or assault - from getting jobs looking after these youngsters.

The private language school industry brings in millions of pounds every year - it is worth Pounds 30 million in Brighton and Hove alone - and is expanding all the time.

Many schools recruit students worldwide and are starting to exploit new markets in ex-Communist eastern European countries.

But there are no enforceable national standards covering the estimated 975 schools in Britain and pupils are not covered by any child-protection legislation unless they stay in the country for more than 28 days (few stay longer than three weeks).

While the public image of a language student is of a teenager, many are as young as eight, and some schools may take even younger children.

Language schools do not have to register as independent, because they are not providing full-time education, so they are immune from local authority inspections of their accommodation, and from Department for Education and Employment inspections of teaching standards.

Many schools board out their pupils with local families. Because the children usually stay for less than 28 days, these host families are not covered by the 1989 Children Act which would oblige them to register with the local authority as private foster parents.

The authority and the language school has no right to force these carers to disclose criminal records or other reasons why they might be unsuitable to look after children.

This leaves a door open for paedophiles and other unscrupulous characters seeking unchallenged access to children.

Language schools can check teaching staff against List 99, but a DFEE spokesman said that they had only had "a handful" of enquiries over the past few years.

He also said that the information would not be released unless the enquiry came from a bona fide institution.

John Windebank, chief inspector of residential care services for East Sussex, an area that plays host to thousands of foreign language students every year in towns along the south coast, said that the authority had raised the issue with the Government, "but nothing has happened . . . I don't think anything will happen until a child is killed".

He said that on several occasions he had discovered language school pupils had been placed with families whose own children were on the at-risk register.

"But we only hear about these cases by chance. We have no right to inspect. We have no idea how extensive this sort of thing is, because the whole area is unregulated. It's a major legal loophole."

He also suggested many incidents go unreported because children wait until they return to their home country to tell their parents, by which time it is too late, while language schools have a vested interest in keeping problems quiet.

"I suspect that children are often sent home if there are difficulties, or moved somewhere else. There is an obvious conflict of interest when the schools are inspecting their own accommodation."

The DFEE has had nothing to do with language schools for the past 10 years. The British Council set up its inspection and accreditation scheme in the early Eighties, to which 325 schools - a third of them - belong. But membership is voluntary. The only sanction the British Council can impose on a school that fails to meet its criteria is to cross it off the approved list - hardly a threat when two-thirds of schools are unregistered.

David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth and a member of the Commons education select committee, said that he would be investigating private language schools as part of a review of standards in private education, due to be published in the autumn.

"There's considerable scope for sharp practice, and because these children do not come under the Children Act, paedophiles could gain access to them - paedophiles are notoriously clever at finding loopholes in the law." Many better schools say they would welcome legislation to avoid being tarred with the same brush as the cowboys.

Bob Brown, chairman of the Brighton and Hove Council Foreign Students' Liaison Group, explained that the council operates its own code of practice for language schools.

However, he admits: "We have no legal powers to enforce any of these things. Under the law at present, anyone can set up a language school and then advertise for families with spare rooms. It is a potentially dangerous situation."

Responsibility for checking out the host family, he said, lies with the school's accommodation officer, and only the school hears about any complaints.

He said he was worried by some of the cowboy groups that move into the area for the summer, advertising for host families. "Who knows if they bother to check them out?" A spokeswoman for Brighton Police said that foreign students, being conspicuous, made easy targets for thieves and gangs. In recent years, students have been attacked on the seafront. Operation Chaffinch, a scheme introduced to combat street crime and advise students about the dangers, has had some success, but she said the police could not get involved in checking out schools or accommodation unless incidents are reported.

The concern is not confined to the south coast. In Oxford, for instance, where the language school business brings in Pounds 20 million a year, the local council has also set up a code of practice.

Senior planning officer Judy Chipchase said that it was difficult to police. "We think there should be new legislation governing language schools. Some of the pupils are very young and it is difficult to ensure they are getting proper services," she says.

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