Friday, 11 September 2009

A sense of proportion over school dinner ladies

I agree with Mark Easton and Michael White about the impact of the new vetting rules for those working with children and vulnerable adults. As a school governor, I have had to have checks by the now defunct Criminal Records Bureau. To be fair, it wasn't all that arduous a procedure, but the climate of suspicion being created is crazy and potentially counterproductive.

The new system already seems slower and more bureaucratic than the CRB. Schools find it particularly difficult recruiting native language teachers from abroad, as their vetting takes longer, and a backlog is emerging with the new procedures now that councils are in charge. And they will find it harder to get volunteers not just as governors but for many of the functions that characterise today's extended school.

Yet the problem as always is that officials and politicians want to play safe. It is a brave minister who tells a civil servant only to bother with the most obvious threats, rather than seeking to cover all bases. I have sat in many meetings where the wish to regulate against every eventuality was the default position. And why might this be so?

Step forward, Her Majesty's Press. Of course, the notion that every formal car pool or PTA volunteer needs to be vetted is an absurd over-reaction. But imagine what the media would say if the next Ian Huntley were a school governor or school-sanctioned car pooler, and documents were FOI-ed showing that Jim Hacker had decided NOT TO vet governors or car-poolers because he wanted to exercise a sense of proportion, against the advice of Sir Humphrey.

To get a flavour of this, you only need to look at what one newspaper said last year when it emerged that some dinner ladies might have slipped through the CRB net:
More than 13,000 people working with children have not passed security checks introduced by the Government in the wake of the Soham murders. The unchecked employees include teachers, caretakers, dinner ladies and lollipop men. The revelation raises the possibility that sex offenders may have slipped through the net.
Surely this newspaper is not the same Daily Mail that is lambasting ministers because of the scope of the vetting measures? As James Slack, the Mail's Home affairs editor puts it today:
It will also extend the reach beyond people who hold positions of responsibility, to anybody who comes into regular contact with the vulnerable. This is classified as once a month, or three times in a single 30 day period. As a result, school dinner ladies, governors, parents who transport children on behalf of sports clubs and even volunteers who read books in schools or nurseries will be dragged into the net. If they perform their voluntary work without clearance, they too could be hammered with a £5,000 fine and criminal record.

You just don't know where you are with school dinner ladies, do you?

This post has been picked up by John Rentoul and by Stumbling and Mumbling.

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