Misjudged government attempts to protect children from sexual abuse will have disastrous implications for teachers and other workers, writes Andrew Stone.
Imagine a state where it is legal for you to lose your job and career due to a crime committed by someone else. It might be a partner, a relative or a housemate, and you might be completely unaware of what they have done. It may have taken place long before you knew them, and they might not even have gone to court as a result – a caution could be sufficient to have you reported and blacklisted.
This is the situation facing teachers, teaching assistants, dinner supervisors and nursery workers at the start of 2015 in the UK. Following supplementary child protection (safeguarding) guidance published in October , the Department for Education (DfE) has signalled its intention to make these requirements statutory early in the new year.
Although in theory the requirements only apply to those working with under 8s, it is unlikely that those working in primary schools would have exclusive contact with over 8s, so all workers in that setting are likely to be affected. It may also impact on secondary schools that provide after-school clubs or provision for younger children. For example I take my one year old to swimming lessons on the site of a secondary school, which could bring it under the requirements’ ambit.
The DfE has not seen fit to issue a pro-forma declaration for schools, or advised on precisely how this information would be ascertained from staff (though it has said that “Schools may choose to ask staff to complete and sign a declaration”). But despite the fact that legal challenges are under way (including by the National Union of Teachers) in some areas staff are already being told to sign a document promising that they are not guilty of living with someone whose past actions might disqualify them. Given the growing prevalence of school workers (including teachers) being forced to flat-share in the face of unaffordable housing, this could be a prospect for a significant number of people.
The stated rationale behind the measures is protecting children from serious sexual or violent offenders. As the parent of an infant who has just begun nursery school, I am in no way blasé about the importance of child protection – though given recent allegations about the involvement of senior Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians in historic sex abuse cases, I am sceptical about their level of commitment. But how does imposing a form of collective punishment further this aim?
The advice supplements the Childcare Act of 2006 and the Childcare (Disqualification) Regulations of 2009, but these were previously only applied to those in pre-school settings. There is some logic to barring a childminder who lives with a paedophile, to give one obvious example. Research by the NSPCC confirms that abuse of under 11s is more likely to be perpetrated by family members, family friends or neighbours than by strangers. But what might be a legitimate precaution for a private, residential setting is disproportionate and unjust when extended to a public setting, particularly given the wide scope of the provisions. Where is the justice (in a case currently being contested by the NUT) in the suspension (and possible debarring) of a deputy headteacher because her husband was cautioned for affray 17 years ago on a demonstration?
Such staff are told that they can appeal to the schools’ inspectorate Ofsted for a “waiver”. But Ofsted is widely loathed by school staff – a survey of the headteachers’ NAHT union in 2012 showed less than 2% believed its decisions were free from political interference. So why should school workers trust that this modern-day factory overseer will protect us?
Teachers generally accept that the nature of our job requires proportionate safeguarding procedures that go beyond those for many professions. Our unions are not opposed to Disclosure and Barring Service checks (formerly Criminal Records Bureau checks) in principle, although sometimes we may challenge their outcomes. There is also widespread acceptance of the law that teachers should not engage in relationships with students, even if these are above the general age of consent of 16, as these would clearly be based on an abusive power relationship. But taking responsibility for your own conduct is one thing – being punished for someone else’s is another.
The main staff unions affected – the NUT, the NASUWT, Unison and the NAHT – are all currently advising members not to sign any disqualification by association document. Members have been told to stall on the basis that they are awaiting further advice from their unions, who argue that its implementation may conflict (among other things) with the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act.
But school managers have the threat of up to six months imprisonment for failing to implement the regulations, and so many are likely to be zealous in doing so. While the vast majority of teachers are unionised, this is not true of support staff – therefore workers, and especially teachers, will need to be confident in providing collective resistance regardless of union lest individuals are victimised. If this requires strike action then we need to take up the challenge, and explain carefully to parents the dangerous legal precedent that we are opposing.
Andrew Stone is a teacher and NUT rep in South London