Unity is the best security

Community spirit and shared values are much more likely to keepchildren safe than complicated legal checks, says Andrew Baxter.

feature of the tragic events in Soham has been the resilience of the community. The dedication and personal qualities of some of the professionals involved have been outstanding: the vicar of Soham and the headteachers rose to the challenge of community leadership in an exemplary and inspiring way. The church and the schools played major roles.

These traditional twin pillars of our communities responded robustly and effectively to these exceptional circumstances in a way which seems to throw helpful light on broader education policy.

The secondary school in Soham is one of Cambridgeshire's network of village colleges, first established more than 70 years ago and subsequently developed, defended and transformed in response to decades of changes in funding regime and national policy.

In addition to serving its 11 to 16-year-old students, a village college provides adult education, youth services, sporting and cultural facilities in an integrated way. At a time of crisis the interdependence of school and community proved a palpable strength.

As we pursue the Government's aspirations for transforming secondary education and identify the potential of "extended" or "full service schools", we must remember that a school is not just a place where a range of public services can be provided to a community. It is a manifestation of that community, and structures and relationships must reflect and reinforce this.

St Andrew's primary in Soham is a church school. It has an even longer history of inter-relationship between church, community and school. But it has always been an inclusive school which saw its mission as the education and development of all the children of the community it served.

Like so many successful church schools working in effective partnership with the authorities that maintain them, it has been a force for integration and cohesion.

In the immediate aftermath of the events in Soham, the thoughts of heads, administrators and ministers turned once again to issues of child protection. Ministers, responding to the siren calls that "something must be done", made the mistake of doing the one thing that appeared to be available to them - tightening up vetting procedures and accelerating their implementation.

Of course, we must all co-operate in refining our vetting processes and securing their effectiveness. This will extend to the vetting of parents and others volunteering to work in schools, although it will only become the unexceptionable norm when the national system for meeting the requirement operates reliably and promptly.

But the events of this summer clearly indicate the limitations of formal checking processes. No matter how sophisticated they are, checks can only tell us about the people who have been caught. To give the impression that a process of continuous improvement to those procedures will lead to significantly improved security is to mislead the very parents whose trust we are trying to maintain.

Effective child protection depends on well-established induction, monitoring and supervision of staff and volunteers. It requires clear and unequivocal standards regarding the conduct of adults towards children, and the development of a safe and open culture in which children and adults have the confidence to speak up about any concerns they have.

It is likely that the range of people presenting themselves for employment in schools will be wide and diverse. Our selection procedures will not always be able to identify those who should not be allowed to work closely with children. It is the school's internal systems and, above all, its climate, which are our best hope.

Andrew Baxter is the chief education officer of Cambridgeshire

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