Eighty-eight sex offenders were free to work in schools

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All teachers convicted or cautioned over a sex offence against a child will be automatically barred from the classroom for life, under the review of the schools vetting system announced yesterday.

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, revealed that 88 convicted or suspected sex offenders had not been banned from working in schools.

She started her Commons statement with an apology to parents, saying she deeply regretted "the worry and concern that has been caused over the past few days" by the row over sex offenders being cleared to carry on teaching.

She said her officials had unearthed 88 cases where teachers either convicted, cautioned or suspected over sexual offences against children would still have been able to continue teaching. Ten of these involved decisions by ministers since 1997 not to place teachers who were on the sex offenders register - which was established in that year - on List 99, which bars a teacher from continuing in the classroom.

In future, she said, ministers would play no part in determining the fate of these teachers. In advance of legislation barring them from the decision-making process, an independent panel, chaired by a former head of Barnardo's, Sir Roger Singleton, would be set up.

Since the emergence last week of the case of Paul Reeve, the PE teacher cleared to work at a school in Norwich, police have visited all 10 teachers and are confident that none of them isteaching. Mr Reeve, who had been cautioned for accessing child pornography, was suspended from his job after police contacted his school. A further 46 teachers - whose offences were mainly committed before 1997 - were not placed on List 99 as a result of recommendations by ministers and officials. Of these, 32 are no longer involved in teaching, one is involved in education and 13 are subject to further inquiries - despite initial assessments by police that they pose no threat.

The cases of a further 32 teachers have also been reinvestigated. Some have been convicted, others cautioned and others merely suspected of sex crimes against children. It is understood that these 32 were never referred to the Department for Education and Skills for inclusion on List 99. Thirty-one of them have been cleared as being no potential threat to children, while one case is still being investigated.

At present, there are 4,045 names on List 99 - with teachers included for a range of offences including fraud, as well as for mental health problems. Most are barred from teaching for life - but 210 are subject to restrictions short of a full ban such as a teacher with a record of interest in boys' pornography but no interest in girls being allowed to teach in an all-girls' school. Of 2,554 referrals to the list last year, only 513 were placed on it.

Legislation to be introduced in the Commons next month will set up a statutory body responsible for deciding all cases. Ms Kelly said there would have to be safeguards to protect teachers from malicious allegations.

Her moves were largely welcomed by teachers' leaders, although John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he feared the checks would be slow and could cost schools a lot of money.