There's a check on the post

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Anat Arkin looks at the problems of verifying teachers' credentials when they apply for a job

When police charged deputy headteacher Sion Jenkins with the murder of 13-year-old Billie-Jo Jenkins last March, they also charged him with "obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception", an offence under the Theft Act 1968.

The police allege that Mr Jenkins gave false information about his academic qualifications and teaching experience when applying for the job of deputy head of the William Parker comprehensive school in Hastings. He has now resigned from this post and is awaiting trial.

Local education authorities - in Mr Jenkins' case, East Sussex County Council - are responsible for checking the qualifications of candidates for jobs in locally managed schools. While governing bodies have the job of selecting candidates, LEAs can over-ride their decision if they find that a candidate lacks professional qualifications, does not satisfy health requirements or has been barred from teaching.

In grant-maintained schools it is the job of governing bodies to look into a candidate's background and qualifications, and the Grant Maintained Schools Centre advises them to check the qualifications of all the people they shortlist. Independent schools are not required to employ qualified teachers, but clearly have an incentive to do so. Last week the head of a preparatory school in Essex suddenly stepped down amid complaints from parents about qualifications claimed by her and another teacher at the school.

In practice, employers usually check the qualifications of newly qualified teachers so that they can carry out an initial salary assessment. Some employers also check the qualifications of more experienced teachers. Lancashire County Council, for instance, asks all successful applicants to present certificates of all their qualifications before confirming teaching appointments. As a result, the authority has occasionally uncovered false claims.

But it is more usual for employers to take what candidates tell them on trust, according to Jerry Bartlett, legal officer for the National Association of School Masters Union of Women Teachers.

"The only circumstances I'm aware of where employers make checks on academic qualifications is where there is reason to be suspicious, perhaps because someone doesn't perform as well as their qualifications would lead you to believe. The employer might then contact the institution where the person says they trained. But there's no automatic procedure for employers to check qualifications, not least because they haven't got the machinery to do it."

The situation is different when it comes to checking whether people have been barred from teaching or have criminal records.

The Department for Education and Employment's List 99 contains the names of people barred or restricted from teaching under-19s on either medical or misconduct grounds. Those barred on medical grounds are listed separately from those barred for misconduct, but no details of the misconduct are given.

Anyone found guilty since October 1, 1995 of a sexual offence against a child under the age of 16 is automatically barred. The Secretary of State also has discretionary power to bar people for other types of misconduct, including violence towards children, failure to disclose past convictions and false claims about qualifications.

But where there is no criminal conviction, there has to be some evidence to support allegations of misconduct before a teacher's name goes on List 99. A new list is produced annually and updated at least twice a year. Copies are held by local authorities, teacher unions, associations representing independent schools and supply teacher agencies.

Employers who cannot make checks through any of these bodies can contact the DFEE directly to find out if a prospective employee has been barred from teaching.

Access to this sensitive document is strictly limited to those responsible for checking applicants' suitability. Teacher unions, for example, are prohibited from telling members whether or not they are on it.

As with checks on qualifications, there is no legal obligation on employers to check List 99 before confirming appointments. The DFEE merely says that it is important to carry out this check. This is just one of the weaknesses of the system, says Maureen Cooper, director of EPM, the privatised personnel unit of Cambridgeshire County Council.

"It's not just that an employer might fail to use List 99 but that the list covers only a small number of cases which are extreme in nature," she says, adding that the procedures for dealing even with these cases are so slow that people who should be barred are sometimes re-employed before their names appear on the list.

The DFEE advises employers that as well as checking against List 99, they should take up references from previous employers and arrange for criminal background checks on applicants for jobs involving substantial unsupervised access to children.

At the moment these police checks are free. But the Police Act, which became law earlier this year, provides for the setting up of a new Criminal Records Agency, which would charge for carrying out checks. In the case of jobs involving unsupervised access to children, the new agency would provide details of both recent and spent convictions, along with information about matters that have not led to a conviction but still give cause for concern. These checks are likely to cost around Pounds 10-Pounds 12.

Despite hopes that the proposed agency will be able to speed up criminal record checks, which at the moment can take months, there are worries that the system of vetting prospective teachers is not as tight as it should be.

Supply teacher agencies, in particular, have come in for criticism - often well founded, according to Chris King, director of education for TimePlan, the longest established agency.

As well as checking List 99 and any overseas equivalent, if available, TimePlan asks for references and evidence of candidates' identity. The agency also looks at original or notarised copies of qualification certificates and arranges for police checks on candidates. EPM, which provides a supply teacher registration service, carries out similar checks and also issues supply teachers with ID cards showing their photographs.

But not all employers go to these lengths. Citing examples of people rejected by TimePlan who have then been taken on by other agencies and, in some cases, by local authorities, Chris King says: "I think we do need to have mechanisms where headteachers can be assured that people who come into their schools to do supply teaching are properly vetted, and I don't believe those measures are there at the moment."

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