A LEGAL loophole that has allowed convicted sex-offenders to work in schools will not be closed for another two years, the Government confirmed this week.
The delay in introducing a full system of police checks on student teachers, supply staff and other adults with access to children is certain to anger those who have campaigned for thorough vetting procedures for several years.
But the Government insists that it cannot extend the existing police-checks system until the Criminal Records Bureau opens in 2001. "The police have to be relieved of this burden because checks will be carried out on not only all teachers but a wide range of staff working for voluntary bodies," a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said this week.
She added that the cost of checking criminal records would probably be borne by teachers - rather than local authorities or schools.
But this proposal is expected to be strongly resisted by the teacher unions. Kay Jenkins, a member of the National Union of Teachers' legal department, said: "There is talk of charging student teachers about pound;5 for a records check when they start their teaching practice and then another pound;10 for an 'enhanced' check when they apply for a job.
"We will be pressing employers to meet this expense but the issue is complicated because the voluntary sector can't afford these charges."
However, Kay Jenkins said that the proposed Criminal Records Bureau service will be much better than the present arrangements. "This will be a 'one-stop shop' that will mean employers no longer have to check out a prospective employee with various bodies," she said.
More importantly, it should also mean that all supply staff and student-teachers are thoroughly vetted. Most teacher-supply agencies do not have access to List 99, the DFEE register of more than 1,000 people either barred from teaching under-19s or subject to restrictions.
Agencies have to rely on education authorities to carry out the checks, an arrangement that has often broken down.
Equally, teacher-training institutions have no power to initiate police checks. They must ask students to declare any convictions but cannot check them.
Mick McManus, a principal lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, has been concerned about this legal loophole for years. "I've never known of a school that checked out a teaching-practice student," he said.
"A BEd student can spend 30 weeks in schools and PGCE students 20 weeks before they are checked out. That is long enough to do a lot of damage."
However, Mr McManus said he did not want to be alarmist. "We have come across only two serious cases in Leeds in 15 years.
"One person suppressed two convictions for actual bodily harm - he said an authority told him it didn't matter because the victim was his girlfriend. But he eventually admitted the offences after his teaching-practice school complained about his aggressive behaviour."