Recent events highlight the challenges facing recruitment agencies in Britain when supplying personnel to work with children.
When recruiting people, such as teachers, or nursery workers, the safety and welfare of the children is paramount. Yet events in January 2006 demonstrated that the system designed to protect children in such cases, is both complex and flawed.
If existing measures are inadequate, what more can be done to simply and effectively ensure the safety of children in these situations?
The latest furore to embroil Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, was triggered by the case of PE teacher Paul Reeve.
Following a caution in 2003 for accessing banned images of children on the internet, Reeve was placed on the sex offenders register. He was, however, cleared to work as a teacher by the government.
Reeve subsequently went to work at Hewett School in Norwich. Following a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, the police raised concerns about his appointment; Reeve was suspended and subsequently resigned.
Reeve's case and others that emerged shortly after, highlighted the complex system of checks and balances designed to ensure that unsuitable people, such as convicted sex offenders, do not work with children.
Various lists exist, at least seven in total, which contain the names of those people considered unsuitable for working with children. These include the sex offenders register, administered by police, and List 99, the blacklist of people banned from working with children, maintained by the education department.
There is also the CRB check. This check can take several months to complete. Once a check is carried out it is valid for two years. The education department, however, has permitted the recruitment of teachers pending the results of the CRB check.
Specialist recruitment agencies are responsible for the supply of a significant number of people who work with children, notably supply teachers. They are in an invidious position. When recruiting a teacher, a recruitment consultancy is obliged by the regulations to check with the CRB that the applicant is authorised to work and not convicted of a disclosable offence.
The checking process involves the recruitment consultancy entering into a contract and registering with the CRB, and being bound by obligations of disclosure. Effectively the agency must be satisfied that the teacher they supply is suitable.
Given that the CRB check can take some time, during which the teacher may already be required, and permitted, to work, this places the agency in something of a conundrum.
Notwithstanding the difficulty for agencies, the maze of lists and checks can, potentially, result in children being placed in danger. Reeve was not on List 99, and so concern was only raised once the CRB check was completed, by which time he was working at a school. When Kelly conducted a review of the situation, it transpired that 88 sex offenders had not been banned from working in schools, and that 32 individuals in England and Wales on the sex offenders register, may need to be included on List 99.
Clearly the system is a mess. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. And this is it. Any person currently authorised to work with children, has their name entered onto a central register. Prior to registration that person's record is checked by the CRB, and the administrators of the register satisfy themselves, by recourse to the results of the CRB check and the other lists available, that the person is suitable to be placed on the register. The register will then consist of a number of names of people whose suitability to work with children has been thoroughly evaluated.
From that point on, any new applicant, if not already on the register, must be cleared and placed on the register before they can work with children.
If someone on the register is cautioned or investigated by the police, the police must notify the registrar at an early stage and appropriate action taken, whether it is to append a notice against a name, or remove a person from the register.
This system means that when an LEA or a school wants to hire a supply teacher, for example, all the recruitment consultant needs to do is to check that the person's name and details are on the register. So the check is undertaken by the registrar, not by the recruitment consultancy. The recruitment consultancy no longer requires a contract with the CRB, neither does it need to delay supplying the teacher.
It is a simple and effective system, that rightly shifts the burden of responsibility away from recruitment consultancies that, as evident from the complexities of the existing system, are not always well placed to fulfil the obligation of assessing the suitability of an applicant.
It also streamlines and speeds up the recruitment process, alleviates uncertainty and, most importantly, provides adequate safeguards for those most at risk because of the existing, deeply flawed system – our children.