Lecturers face school-style criminal checks as number of under-16 students surges, reports Martin Whittaker
College staff can expect to find themselves increasingly under the microscope as child protection becomes a major pre-occupation of ministers.
Further education will not escape the new climate of concern which has already made it mandatory for all school staff to have Criminal Record Bureau checks, even if their work doesn't involve contact with children.
Concern over child safety has mounted, as the number of under-16s routinely studying part-time in colleges rises, particularly on vocational courses.
From next term, all new FE staff will face criminal record checks and, like schools, will have to demonstrate robust record-keeping in inspections.
Ofsted says there are good child protection measures in place when it comes to lecturers but the picture is more patchy for non-teaching colleagues.
A spokesman for the Department of Education and Skills said: "We are working with the Learning and Skills Council and other partners to develop robust arrangements for vetting people in contact with the under-18 age group and vulnerable adults."
The toughening of staff vetting comes after it was revealed in January that a man on the sex offenders' register had been given a job as a school gym teacher.
The ensuing storm revealed a child protection system in chaos. At the height of the row, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children warned that the risks to under-16s in colleges were being overlooked.
A Learning and Skills Development Agency survey last year found nearly three quarters of colleges had concerns about meeting their child protection duties.
All those working with under-18s must have an enhanced CRB check - but the same rule does not apply to a college's adult students.
Christiane Ohsan, a national official of the University and College Union, said: "In some places there's good practice. In other places our members tell us that there isn't. We have always had 14-16-year-old students in colleges, on a much smaller scale. There's always been some exchange - but not on the scale of what's happened over the last three years."
The DfES says the child protection responsibilities of college corporations are similar to those of governing bodies of state schools up to the age of 18.
Unlike schools, though, colleges do not have the benefit of support from local education authorities in dealing with child protection.
Colleges should also have procedures for dealing with allegations of abuse against members of staff. Further guidelines state that school and college partnerships should prevent pupils working alone with a single adult.
Crucially, the guidelines state that "all adults contributing to the education and training of pupils have a responsibility for their social, physical and emotional welfare".
According to Ms Ohsan, this responsibility now means much more than simply ensuring that children are safe and secure on a college campus.
"Child protection agencies would say that lecturers ought to be able to spot signs of abuse, and therefore follow the procedures which would normally be followed up in a school," she said. "By and large, lecturers do pick up on the welfare of students, but maybe not on the scale they might be expected to with 14-to-16s."
For further information on child protection issues see: www.teachernet.gov.uk or www.aoc.co.ukMembers