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School Record Keeping

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2006

Protecting children is paramount. In January, my predecessor asked Ofsted to investigate vetting practices in schools, colleges and local authorities. Ofsted has today published its report, which is available in the House of Commons Library. I thank the chief inspector for this thorough and diligent piece of work.

The report shows that all those involved in the recruitment of staff are committed to child protection, that they almost always demonstrate good practice, and that, crucially, vital checks on prospective employees are being carried out—there were 700,000 last year alone. However, Ofsted is equally clear that not enough is being done in our schools and colleges to keep proper records of what, when and against whom checks are being made. We will act quickly, but carefully, to tackle the failings that Ofsted has identified.

We are writing to all schools and local authorities today to set out clearly the measures necessary to strengthen the system. Copies of those letters will be placed in the House of Commons Library. I am asking all schools to make sure that they have the records that they need to demonstrate that they have checked the identity, qualifications and any criminal record of their staff. To be absolutely sure that that happens, I will lay regulations to that effect.

Secure, reliable and up-to-date records must be maintained in an accessible location. If schools do not have a record that a check has been made, a further full Criminal Records Bureau check will have to be conducted and a record kept. My Department and the CRB will work together to ensure that that takes place as speedily as possible. I want similar processes to take place in colleges, so we will work with the Association of Colleges to take that forward. To ensure compliance, Ofsted will check that adequate records and systems are in place as part of its regular school inspection regime.

Ofsted has also reported that there were complications associated with recruiting teachers from overseas. Head teachers currently seek a certificate of good conduct in addition to proof of qualifications and identity. As Ofsted points out, when there is any doubt, schools err on the side of caution and do not appoint the applicant. That has to be the right approach, but I am announcing today that I will go further than Ofsted recommends and lay regulations to ensure that schools and local authorities also complete a CRB check on all staff recruited from overseas. The procedures for overseas staff must be exactly the same as those for UK-based staff.

Agency staff also need particular attention. Supply agencies are under a duty to ensure that the staff that they supply are properly checked and suitable to work with children, including CRB and list 99 checks. That should not depend on a request from the school. I am asking for this information on agency staff also to be included in the exercise that each school must undertake to establish clear records. To make all of this clear, we will tighten regulations so that schools are legally required to obtain confirmation from agencies that CRB checks have been carried out, and to keep a record of this, just as they do for permanent staff.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, currently before the House, will go further still, making it a criminal offence for supply agencies to supply staff without having made the appropriate checks. I know that head teachers already have a very heavy workload, but these are matters that we all agree are paramount. The local safeguarding children boards and directors of children’s services will provide schools with local support, ensure that the right training is available and keep the Department informed of progress. I will be more assertive, to use the words of Ofsted, in influencing head teachers and governors to undertake the online safer recruitment training, as Ofsted has recommended.

The report also says that schools, colleges and local authorities need clearer guidance. We have been preparing revised guidance, which we will put out for consultation in the next few weeks. That will ensure that all schools and colleges have the information in one place. It will make their responsibilities crystal clear, while clarifying issues such as arrangements for employing staff while checks are being completed and processes for volunteer staff, including school governors. We are writing to directors of children’s services and the Learning and Skills Council to ensure that this revised guidance is properly implemented.

I would like to update the House on the list 99 review, following progress since my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), last made a statement on 1 March. First, I remind the House that she introduced a number of measures in response to public concerns that arose in January. As well as commissioning the Ofsted report that I have just mentioned, she announced that she would make it mandatory for all schools to check all new employees against the CRB; would accept advice from Sir Roger Singleton’s panel of experts on decisions to put people on list 99, as a precursor to the independent barring board to be introduced in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, subject to the will of the House; and would widen list 99’s scope, so that anyone convicted of cautioned for a sexual offence against a child would be automatically included on the list, as well as anyone convicted of a serious sexual offence.

The House will recall that there were a number of cases where Ministers or officials had decided not to include an individual on list 99. I can tell the House that all but one of those has been reassessed by the police as not posing any threat to children. Of the one individual who is being considered further, he has been visited by the police, is not working with children and has not been identified as an immediate cause for concern.

My right hon. Friend referred also to 32 cases of individuals who were on the sex offenders register, but had not previously been referred to the Department by the police. All of those individuals have now either been, or are being, thoroughly investigated—22 have already been barred and the remaining 10 are still being investigated. They have all been visited by police, are not working with children, and remain subject to the ongoing monitoring that is associated with inclusion on the sex offenders register. Sir Roger Singleton continues with his work, for which I thank him, and I will keep the House updated on progress.

All Members of the House are equally strongly committed to guarding and protecting our children from those who seek to harm them. We need eternal vigilance to protect children from those whose nature is to manipulate and deceive, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the system is as robust as possible and that any failings are addressed as soon as they are identified.

With today’s changes, the system will be stronger still, producing greater trust and confidence in our schools and colleges, to ensure that our children are safe and secure. Those whom we represent expect nothing less.

I welcome the new information from the Secretary of State and the publication of the Ofsted report, which the Government rightly commissioned six months ago. We also welcome the further measures that he is announcing today. However, does he agree that parents have genuine cause for concern from the Ofsted report?

The report surely shows extraordinarily poor standards of record keeping in our schools, but the problems go way beyond that. Indeed, for the Secretary of State to entitle his statement “School Record Keeping” does not really do justice to the scale of the problem, responsibility for which must be shared throughout the world of education. Local authorities are criticised in the report, and there is clearly an enormous loophole with teacher supply agencies. The report says that

“in effect, agencies do not have to carry out CRB checks on staff unless schools request that they do. This is not tight enough.”

Incidentally, it is absolutely extraordinary that the Department for Education and Skills, which is dependent now on teacher supply agencies, seems to have no idea how many there are. The report states:

“The exact number of teacher supply agencies is not known, but one official from the DfES estimated the number to be 300 and another estimated it was 1,500”.

That is surely something that we will wish to pursue on another occasion.

As well as local authorities and teacher supply agencies, the Department is strongly criticised for unclear and confusing guidance. Let me quote again from the Ofsted report:

“Recent communications from government clouded matters relating to CRB and there is some confusion. Guidance is not sufficiently comprehensive to give local authorities and schools a clear steer about their respective responsibilities.”

The picture painted by the report is very worrying indeed, yet the previous Secretary of State said that:

“we can give the public an absolute assurance that the process is as robust as possible to ensure that the risk to children is minimised.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 978.]

Does the Secretary of State agree that his predecessor did not have the information to make that assertion? Does he feel able to repeat that assurance today, in the light of the information in the report? I fear not.

Of course, we must be careful about how we talk about this very sensitive subject—I know personally of the dangers of vigilantism and lynch mobs because of the notorious riots in 2000 in Portsmouth, which is very close to my constituency—but the only way to restore public confidence in the system is for lessons to be learned. The Secretary of State was quite right that schools must take their responsibilities more seriously. Local authorities must provide clear guidance and support and do their fair share of record keeping. However, whereas the report makes five recommendations for schools and two for local authorities, it makes six for the Department for Education and Skills. Therefore, the Department must take its share of responsibility for the confusion described in the report. It rushed out guidance on 19 January and then issued another letter to clarify that guidance on 26 January—no wonder schools were confused.

Often in the House, we warn about the dangers of floods of instructions and initiatives from Whitehall. That is not mere political rhetoric—the report shows what happens when schools are deluged with sometimes contradictory guidance. The Department’s letter of 19 January listed no fewer than 11 separate items of guidance, dating back to 1996. One of those items in 2002 specifically said that, because of the backlog of cases, teachers could go ahead and recruit staff without the completion of normal checks with the Criminal Records Bureau. That advice was necessary because of a backlog of cases, but may I ask the Secretary of State about his announcement today that schools without proper records will need to do new CRB checks? That could cover 90 per cent. of schools. Can he say how many schools will be affected? Is he confident that the CRB will be able to deliver? He also announced Criminal Records Bureau checks on teachers from abroad. Will he tell us how those checks can be effective in view of the difficulties of obtaining information from some other countries?

The additional measures that the Secretary of State has announced today are welcome, but does he not recognise the dangers of yet more complexity? What schools need is simple, straightforward, consolidated guidance, instead of having to turn to so many different documents. We will strongly support the Secretary of State if that is what he finally achieves, but is there not a danger of confusing schools with yet more short-term instructions, together with yet more consultation on draft guidance, which will mean schools facing months, if not years, of continuing uncertainty?

Why has the Department been so slow in implementing the Bichard report, which is two years old this week, especially when we were told two Home Secretaries and two Education Secretaries ago that it would be implemented urgently? What we need above all is a single authoritative list of those not suitable to work with children. Only when that is achieved will the concerns of parents finally be tackled.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the report and my statement. I agree that parents should be genuinely concerned about today’s report, which I do not think makes comfortable reading. Of course, my predecessor commissioned the report precisely because we wanted to be sure not just that checks were being made, but that there was a clear record of such checks. In that context, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is reassuring when Ofsted says that it is “highly likely”—not just probable or likely, but highly likely—that those checks had taken place. The simple fact is—I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman by emphasising that the procedures apply to 100 per cent. of schools—that unless we have a clear record of staff being identified, qualifications being checked and any criminal records being established, we cannot be absolutely sure that all the checks have taken place.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned agency staff. If I understood him correctly, he was talking about the number of agency staff, but Ofsted referred to the number of agencies and no one was absolutely clear about that. There may be some ambiguity in that agencies spring up all the time. He said that agency staff formed a large proportion of the schoolteacher population. They comprise 3 per cent., of which only 1 per cent. come from the traditional recruitment agencies of local authorities. About 2 per cent. would classify themselves as agency staff, but they are known to the school—perhaps ex-teachers who have retired but been called back in—and the school trusts them implicitly. The total is 3 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman referred to DFES guidance and I completely accept the criticism. We cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say that it is absolutely right for schools, local authorities and colleges to be criticised, but not the DFES. Six recommendations were made, which the DFES will follow. Some were fairly minuscule—like me being more emphatic or assertive with certain education authorities, which I will be—but others were very serious. The fact that the guidance was not viewed as being clear amounts to a very serious recommendation that we must act upon. I fully accept that.

I want to make the point that we are talking about a situation of continuous improvement. I accept that there may be a danger of having too many pieces of guidance, which should be brought together. In January, the tremendous concern led to a desperation to act very quickly, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West did a tremendous job in just 10 days of putting people’s minds at rest. We now have the ability to reflect carefully on the recommendation and try to be clearer in our guidance.

I have to be clear about another important aspect of schools going through the checks: we are asking for 100 per cent. of schools to go through the process. The report showed that in 55 out of 58 schools, records were not kept in an accessible place for Ofsted to see in order to demonstrate that staff had been clearly identified and their qualifications or any criminal record checked. That must now happen. What we are saying to schools is that they may well have that information, but they need to compile it on the register. If the schools do not have the CRB check, the individual teacher or member of staff may have it. The staff will all receive a copy of their CRB check, so the school should ask them for it. If not, perhaps the local authority has it. If they cannot find the CRB check by those methods, they will need to go through the CRB checking procedure again. I realise the amount of work that that will place on schools. We have to do it as quickly as possible, but we must be sure that we do not disrupt the system. Nevertheless, schools, head teachers and everyone in education will agree that that needs to be done. The Ofsted report must be treated seriously, and to do so we must ensure that those records are put in place.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has come to the House and made the statement so promptly. I also welcome the Government’s decision to set up the Ofsted review, which would inevitably open up the Government to some criticism. It was the right decision and we on the Liberal Benches welcome that. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), always tried hard to work constructively with the Government on the issue because it is so sensitive and so difficult. I will try to continue with that tone. However, I have a number of concerns, to which I hope the Secretary of State will respond.

The right hon. Gentleman recognised the need for consolidated guidance and I hope he will achieve that, but does he recognise that the problem for schools is guidance overload? It can be difficult for schools to discern the difference between new guidance and old guidance that has been updated. In addition to issuing consolidated guidance, as I hope he will, will he look in general at the way in which the Department issues guidance to schools and ensure that it is always clear and that schools can see what is new and what is old?

The Secretary of State recognised that many supply teachers are provided not through agencies, but through informal contacts with schools because they are retired or because, after an initial contact with an agency, a school may develop a relationship with a particular supply teacher so that they can come in at short notice. Will his guidance deal specifically with that and make it clear who is responsible for ensuring that CRB checks are kept up to date and carried out regularly, particularly for short notice cover?

The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted existing regulations to apply also to further education colleges. That is to be welcomed, especially as I hope that the Government will encourage more young people to use the services offered by FE colleges, but that opens up a gap in the system. Will he be clear that the regulations will apply to both teaching and non-teaching staff at colleges, as already happens with schools, and that the CRB checks required will be enhanced, not just basic? There appears to be a discrepancy with the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, and I should be grateful if the Secretary of State would look into the matter.

The Ofsted report highlighted ambiguities in the way in which guidance is issued to schools that control their own employment practice, such as foundation and academy schools. Will the guidance make it clear who is responsible for checking foundation or trust-appointed governors? As we heard when we debated the Education and Inspections Bill, the Charity Commission is responsible for CRB checks on trustees for new trust schools, but who will be responsible for ensuring that those checks are kept up to date and carried out regularly? That is not clear.

Very large numbers of people are likely to come on to a school campus to provide out-of-school clubs under the extended schools programme. Who will be responsible for undertaking CRB checks, and who will pay for them—the school or the voluntary group? What support will head teachers get to help them to cope with the enormous increase in the burden of paperwork for those schools?

Lastly, Ofsted highlighted difficulties for head teachers in reporting soft information about staff causing concern, because of employment law. It is right that head teachers should be cautious about that. What changes will the Government make to the system to boost confidence and make sure that delicate and difficult information is passed on correctly so that it can be used appropriately?

We will make every effort to work constructively with the Government and I hope they will be open with us at all stages about the information that they have.

I thank the hon. Lady for her constructive approach, which the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) also adopted. Consolidated guidance would be excellent, and I will do everything I can to ensure that we have not only clear guidance, but consolidated guidance. The teaching unions to which I have already spoken are concerned that teachers are getting so much guidance that it is difficult to keep up, which was also an implied criticism made by Ofsted.

The responsibility for CRB checks in foundation schools, voluntary aided schools and voluntary controlled schools always comes back to the school. A local authority might make checks, too—it has a responsibility to keep proper records—but that does not detract from the belt-and-braces approach by which the school should make sure that a proper check has taken place. The school is where parents will ask teachers and head teachers for reassurance and where Ofsted will conduct its inspection, and the matter comes down to the school on every occasion.

I will look into the point about colleges—I think that an enhanced CRB check is required, but I will write to the hon. Lady because there are complications around colleges that do not exist in schools. Similarly, the provision on extended schools was a specific recommendation by Ofsted, which we need to examine, but it seems to me that the responsibility for CRB checks once again lies with the school, although providers of services in the extended hours will have an equal responsibility. Nevertheless, Ofsted has highlighted that point and we need to respond to it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report is good, that it should be taken seriously and that all our systems must be improved? I am delighted that that seems to be his attitude, but does he agree that that approach must be balanced by common sense about what is really going on in our schools? I hope that he, like me, believes that children in this country are taught in safe environments by expert teachers whom everyone in the community can trust. Over many years, there have been very few incidents of children being actively at risk in our country. Will my right hon. Friend join me in getting the balance right because some elements in our media will whip up hysteria, which is dangerous, damaging and frightening for parents and everyone involved in education?

The whole House will agree with my hon. Friend, who has a distinguished record in this area. Since January, the House has handled the issue in an exemplary way and has not suggested that children in this country are in jeopardy to an extent that is not reflected in reports, and least of all in today’s report. I also think that it would be strange and unusual if the media were not to take a deep interest in the matter. We are discussing the safety of children when they are at their most vulnerable, which is why, as my hon. Friend has said, we must maintain a balance, but I have no complaints about the press and the media maintaining a careful focus on the issue.

Has the Secretary of State discussed the proposals with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that they are implemented in that part of the United Kingdom, too? That is especially important because recently it has been revealed that many schools do not record teachers’ criminal records. Indeed, it is sometimes only when a teacher moves from one school to another that a CRB check is carried out. Will the Secretary of State say whether teaching unions have expressed opposition to schools keeping records of teachers’ criminal records?

The provision applies to Northern Ireland and I will discuss it with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We are meeting teachers and all other interested parties—I shall avoid the dreadful term “stakeholders”—tomorrow to go through all those ideas, but the initial reaction, which I have seen, to the Ofsted report was measured. Everyone in education understands the importance of checking. Schools will not be checking criminal records—they will be checking with the CRB whether checks have been carried out and recording the fact that that has happened. Everyone in education is clear that that is the right way forward—they might have some concerns about the detail, but the principle is widely shared.

I echo the plea for balance made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. In view of what I have said about apparent loopholes in legislation, can he assure the House that the issue of a local authority member who is on the sex offenders register is being considered and will be incorporated into the guidance that is about to be issued?

I believe that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill will tackle that, but I will take my hon. Friend’s point into account and consider what interim measures we need. Many of these measures, such as the Singleton body, pre-empt what will be in the Bill.

Given that Ofsted inspections are not necessarily that frequent—indeed, it is good if they are not—does the Secretary of State think that it would make sense for the local authority to have a duty to make checks across all the schools within its boundaries more regularly?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point that I have been considering myself. My initial view was that local safeguarding children boards should oversee this, but perhaps local authorities should be involved as well. We certainly cannot wait until the next Ofsted inspection to ensure that the records are in place. I am still thinking through who would be best to oversee this.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which strikes the right balance between doing what needs to be done and avoiding unnecessary panic. May I ask him particularly about safer recruitment training? Should undertaking that training be a requirement of appointment for a head teacher, or at least for the chair of the governing body? Since the prime responsibility of a school is to ensure that its children are safe, should not we make it a condition of appointment that all heads undertake such training?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. That was not Ofsted’s recommendation—it asked me to be more assertive. I suppose that I could be more assertive by introducing regulation; I will consider that. My own view is that we should regulate only where it is absolutely necessary—

Perhaps I will reflect on that. I think that, if we explain this properly to teachers, through their unions and through the debate that we will have tomorrow, my being assertive will be enough, but if not, we might have to consider regulations.

How many countries have long-standing and accurate registers of the kind that we would accept? Does the Secretary of State see problems as regards teachers who came to this country from overseas some years ago without the benefit of any such register or check? What is his advice to schools that employ such people?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important and difficult issue. Twenty-one countries are part of the Criminal Records Bureau wider international check—the overseas information service. Fortunately, among those 21 are seven of the eight countries that give us the most teachers, including South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Curiously, America is not one of them. That allows for a checking mechanism. The certificate of good conduct is a method that has been used, but Ofsted has found a couple of cases involving local authorities where those records were not as stringent as they should have been. We need to work harder in these areas. Ofsted said that everyone to whom it spoke errs on the side of caution. That is absolutely right. There need to be identity checks on overseas staff, whichever country they come from, to be absolutely sure that they are who they say they are and that their qualifications are accurate. They will now have to undergo the CRB check. In several countries, records are not good. We need to work more closely with the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and with our international partners in the European Union and elsewhere, to ensure that we get this right. It is a reciprocal process, because British and UK people go abroad to teach, and everyone needs to be assured that there are proper checks.

Having had some experience of a distressing case in my constituency, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his announcement, which might have prevented the case from occurring. He said that head teachers had a heavy work load, which is a fortiori the case in small schools. Will he reassure the House that the arrangements will be effective but not administratively burdensome? Could the local education authority play a role in providing the necessary secure intranet access? As the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) said, small schools often have arrangements with individuals locally. What is the minimum amount of time between the use of occasional cover staff that would be necessary to trigger a further check?

My hon. Friend is right that teachers have a heavy work load. Nevertheless, I am sure that they will be convinced of the need to implement the proposals. We will provide help, not only through the local education authority, but from the Department and the local safeguarding children boards. Assistance will be available. Together, we can ensure that we act quickly.

I welcome the moderate and measured tone in which the statement has been made and my question is in the same spirit. The Secretary of State mentioned one of the criticisms of the Department. Will he identify the other four or five and say what he is inclined to about them?

Yes. Four recommendations are that we should: provide clear guidance; make a clear and specific statement about checks on school governors, which I mentioned; provide clearer guidance on schools’ responsibilities when employing staff from abroad or through supply agencies, which I covered in the statement; and provide guidance on suitable employment practices for those who are not checked or are awaiting checks—that refers to “sight and sound”. If a school is waiting for a CRB check on a teacher, other member of staff, or a volunteer who is helping children to read, the rules are clear: that person must stay within sight and sound of another teacher and not be left alone. The fifth recommendation is to speed up the handling of cases of misconduct that are reported to us and the sixth is the one that I mentioned about my being assertive.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the prompt and sensible response to today’s Ofsted report, but will he reassure hon. Members that pupil referral units and home hospital education services—indeed, any organisation involved in educating and training our young people—will also have to keep those records?

Yes, I will. Indeed, the Protection of Children Act 1999 list and the protection of vulnerable adults list were set up precisely for those purposes.

Will the Secretary of State clarify his statement about requiring schools to check with supply agencies that the CRB check has been done? I ask because there is a case in my constituency of a vulnerable adult for whom an agency supplied a carer. The CRB check was given over the phone and it subsequently transpired that the worker had a heroin record. When the responsible adult phoned, the records had disappeared. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that, when supply teachers go into schools, they bring with them a copy of their CRB check so that the school can have physical proof before a teacher starts work?

Yes, I can confirm that. The hon. Member for Havant also referred to agency staff. The Ofsted report states that the six agencies that it visited all checked with the CRB. It made the point that there was some confusion in schools, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned. Schools thought that someone else, perhaps the local authority, was checking, and there is no stringent requirements on them to do that, although we believe that the 1973 Department of Trade and Industry regulations, updated in 2003, make it clear that all agencies must undertake a criminal record check. The words that schools must take

“all other reasonably practicable steps to confirm that the work-seeker is not unsuitable for the position concerned”

must refer to checking with the CRB. For the absence of any doubt, we will put that in Education Act regulations so that the schools must seek proof to complete the register, on the compiling of which Ofsted has insisted.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today. Will he seriously consider the difficulties that we might get into with supply teachers and peripatetic teachers? Local colleges use many part-time workers. Will he revisit the role that the local education authority can play in this scenario? Many supply teachers work in schools within one local authority area and rarely stray across the border, so the authority could be the one central key player in this regard.

My hon. Friend is right, although many local authorities have their own supply agencies. He also mentioned colleges. I referred in my statement to working with the Association of Colleges to find a system that we can be sure will replicate in colleges the action that we are taking in schools. In schools, it is clearly the responsibility of the school; in colleges, the situation is more complex, which is why I want to tackle the issue with the Association of Colleges.

While we may draw some comfort from the number of countries with whom we have effective reciprocal arrangements, does the Secretary of State accept that clause 7 of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill provides that it is an offence for someone who is barred to seek, secure or apply for an engagement working with children? Would it not be appropriate to extend that prohibition to anyone from overseas who has committed a criminal offence that would have secured their barring in this country?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point, but that matter is probably best left to the Bill’s Standing Committee. There are complications involved in his suggestion, but it is something that we can discuss as the Bill goes through the House.