Thousands of headteachers need to make "considerable improvements" to their child safeguarding procedures, inspectors have warned.
Twenty-one per cent of schools in England scored only satisfactory ratings for their systems to protect pupils, statistics show. Last year 26 schools failed their inspection purely because of poor safeguarding arrangements, Ofsted said.
According to a report published today by the inspectorate: "Parents, carers and children should feel reassured that almost all schools now take a careful and responsible approach to their safeguarding arrangements.
"On the other hand, safeguarding arrangements in 21 per cent of schools were only satisfactory overall, indicating the need for considerable improvement."
Common weaknesses of schools rated inadequate included the failure to keep a single central record of recruitment and vetting checks covering all adults who had regular contact with children. There were also examples of insufficient child- protection training for staff.
The report stresses it is "rarely the case" for schools to be judged as inadequate solely on the basis of weaknesses in their safeguarding arrangements, and that inspectors want to dispel "mythology" which has emerged about the judgment of safeguarding.
"Ofsted does not require schools to build walls around play areas; it doesn't expect schools to seek Criminal Records Bureau checks on casual visitors to schools, including parents; it does not judge a school to be inadequate because of minor administrative errors, or because an inspector's ID was not checked," it says. "Ofsted does not try to catch schools out."
The comments follow a series of claims that Ofsted was being too harsh in its judgments over safeguarding when new rules were introduced in 2009. The watchdog was forced to revise its guidance to inspectors, admitting that there had been a lack of clarity.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said inspectors were still being too "harsh" and "inflexible" when judging schools' safeguarding procedures.
"I have heard about schools in tiny hamlets not being given the top judgments just because they don't have the same procedures as inner-city schools," he said.
"There is also great variability between different inspection teams. Everybody recognises safeguarding has critical implications and schools are very aware of the consequences of getting this wrong. But Ofsted needs to start looking beyond the administrative aspects and look at actual practice."
Acting chief inspector Miriam Rosen said: "Those schools which have a satisfactory rating will be doing some of the elements fine, but not all of them. Safeguarding is not given the same priority.
"Poor safeguarding practice is also linked to weaknesses in leadership, management and governance."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said: "A few bad experiences have cast a long shadow for headteachers. But the days of people feeling uncertain and there being conflicts about safeguarding judgments are dying away.
"This is because Ofsted has started to clarify areas. But it is also because schools are getting better at safeguarding."
The law says .
- Schools must provide a safe environment and take action to identify and protect any children or young people who are at risk of significant harm.
- Schools are required to prevent unsuitable people from working with children; ensure staff receive necessary training; and to work in partnership with other agencies providing services for children and young people.
Original headline: Thousands of heads must boost safeguarding, warns Ofsted