UK Family Law Reform

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Kelly faces sex offender row 8th January 2006

The police and NSPCC are calling for policy reform after the Education Secretary backed a suspected paedophile to become a school PE teacher

Campaigners are demanding an urgent reform of Britain's child protection system after The Observer revealed last night that the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, had approved the appointment of a registered sex offender as a PE teacher.

Kelly's decision - in the full knowledge that the man had been placed on the register by police, who believed he had accessed paedophile websites - has astonished children's charities and triggered calls for politicians to be prevented from deciding who should be barred from working in education.

Last night the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said lessons had still to be learnt following the murders of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002. After Ian Huntley was convicted of the pair's murder, it emerged the school caretaker had been linked to a catalogue of allegations of rape, indecent assault and sex with underage girls.

The revelation prompted the Bichard Inquiry, which called for more stringent vetting of those working with children and criticised agencies and police for failing to check Huntley's background. 'The NSPCC has been concerned for some time that the decision to bar someone from working closely with children rests with the Secretary of State for Education on the advice of civil servants rather than child protection experts,' said Natalie Cronin, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC.

'It is not clear whether civil servants have the degree of knowledge necessary to make such a decision. To judge whether someone will be a risk to children, you need to consider a number of potential risks. You also need knowledge of employment law, criminal law and a detailed knowledge of child protection.'

The Observer can reveal that the teacher was given a position within the physical education department at The Hewett School in Norwich in December but was suspended before taking up the position following protests from police.

Last May, the Department for Education and Skills' Safeguarding Children unit wrote to Norfolk County Council, saying that the Secretary of State for Education had 'considered all aspects of the case, including sex offender registration, and decided that the risks of the teacher being allowed to continue teaching were acceptable'.

The Safeguarding Children unit said Kelly believed the man should not be placed on list 99, the national list of people barred from working with children. There have been suggestions that she believed the evidence against the man was inconclusive. However, police are understood to have followed stringent Home Office guidelines when deciding to place the man on the register and privately express deep reservations that their risk assessment was overruled.

Last night Norfolk Social Services issued a statement calling on the DfES to review its guidance to schools. 'This case highlights a serious policy contradiction that we are keen that the DfES addresses urgently - namely that it is possible for a teacher to have their name on the sex offender register, but not on list 99. We have written to the DfES highlighting these concerns and have been informed they are reviewing these matters.'

In a prepared joint statement, Tom Samain, the headteacher at The Hewett School, and Marion Wright, its chair of governors, said: 'Child protection is our paramount concern at The Hewett School and we take our responsibilities very seriously indeed.

'The person concerned is no longer employed and there will be a full examination of the processes in this case. This is the first time we have had such a case and received such a notification from the DfES. We are concerned at the policy contradictions it throws up and have raised our concerns with the DfES.'

Simon Morgan, a spokesman for Norfolk police, said they had acted immediately on learning of the man's appointment. 'Swift action was taken as soon as this matter came to our attention. We convened an urgent meeting with all relevant partner agencies and individuals including the headteacher to review the situation and determine the most appropriate course of action. The issues which arose from that meeting are now being pursued by children's services and Norfolk County Council and the Department for Education and Skills.'

A spokesman for the DfES said it didn't discuss individual cases and that it was up to local education authorities to assess the risk posed by a potential teacher.

'We urge all employers in the education sector to carry out thorough pre-employment checks, including Criminal Record Bureau checks, on prospective employees and there is an onus on them to do this. For those working as teachers, employers should obtain a CRB-enhanced level disclosure, which will reveal whether the individual is on the sex offender register, along with other important information that employers should consider when deciding whether to employ someone.'

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