Plan for outsiders on abuse panels

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Investigators could boost protection procedures. Karen Thornton reports

Independent outsiders with voting rights could be imposed on governing bodies dealing with allegations of child abuse against teachers, under changes proposed by the Assembly government.

Governors would also be provided with Assembly funded investigators to look into cases involving child-protection issues.

The plans for independent investigators have been widely welcomed, but headteachers and governors are concerned about imposing outsiders with voting rights on governors' disciplinary committees.

The Assembly government has been looking at ways to improve child protection in schools since the children's commissioner Peter Clarke's critical Clywch report, published last year.

Officials have rejected his call for independent tribunals chaired by lawyers to deal with allegations of child abuse against school staff.

Instead, as was widely expected (TES Cymru, March 25), draft regulations propose setting up a fully-funded investigation service to support governors dealing with such cases.

However, the proposal to require independent non-governors to sit and vote on disciplinary committees is worrying governors. The investigators would be different people from the additional board members. Colin Thomas, director of Governors Wales, which represents some of the country's 26,000-plus school governors, welcomed the promise of independent investigators.

But he said there was no precedent for imposing outsiders on governing bodies. "An independent adviser is one thing, but someone with voting rights is something else entirely," he said.

"This is not the model we would have favoured. It's not consistent with the normal responsibilities and duties of governors."

And he added: "It's fairly unlikely these people would be able to develop experience in this field because they are likely to be called upon very infrequently."

However, the Assembly government insists non-governor members would have to have voting rights to ensure an independent voice on disciplinary committees. Particularly in small schools or communities, "the closeness of governors to school staff can make it difficult for them to arrive at an unbiased judgement", it says.

Peter Clarke, who still favours tribunals, said he was "very supportive" of the new draft regulations. He welcomed the Assembly's commitment to fund an independent investigation service and said it was critical that independent members of disciplinary committees have voting rights.

"They could still be outvoted, but it would be on record," he said.

Governors are responsible for staff appointments, pay and disciplinary issues. Allegations of child abuse against school staff are normally referred to local area child-protection committees. But where no prosecution takes place or fails, or for cases not dealt with externally, governors have to decide about taking disciplinary action.

Consultations close October 28. See www.learning.wales.gov.uk

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