What's the best way to ensure young people are taught in safety?

Colleges now have to pay closer attention to protecting students. But problems surround the tighter structures.

Safeguarding students has become the single biggest issue for today's colleges. Not because students are at particular risk of harm in the further education sector, but because colleges have been expected to pay closer attention to the topic than ever before. But while the tighter structures being put in place might look like good news for all, they are fraught with difficulties.

Keeping young people safe within educational institutions became particularly pertinent in 2002 when Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, murdered two schoolgirls in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The killings shocked the nation, not least because it turned out that there was a series of allegations that Huntley had been having sex with under-age girls. Because of shortcomings and inconsistencies in how agencies shared information about his conduct, it was not picked up.

"We cannot bring back Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, nor can we now correct mistakes that were made up to nine years ago in responding to the needs of other young people with whom Ian Huntley came into contact, but what we can do is learn from those mistakes so that young people are better protected in the future," reported Sir Christopher Kelly in his subsequent report.

The result is the new Vetting and Barring Scheme, which requires those working with young people in the education sector to register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). The scheme will be phased in over the next five years, essentially requiring them to apply for a "licence" to work with children.

"Unlike the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) certificate, which provides a snapshot in time and only flags up criminal records, registering with the ISA means people working with young people will be continually monitored, and educational institutions can report information about individuals working with children where there is concern they pose a risk of harm," says Emma Mason, senior employment adviser at the Association of Colleges (AoC).

"Before, schools and colleges reported misconduct to ministers, but now there is a central body that is independent of government to which issues of concern will be referred by employers, social services and other organisations. This means all the information is now brought together in one place. When a college is recruiting a new member of staff, they will have extra assurances about their suitability for the job via a simple online check of their registration status."

There is no doubt this is reassuring for parents, students and colleges alike. For college employees, the process is relatively straightforward, too. The less welcome news is that registration costs £64 per application. "If colleges are expected to pay – as many have done with CRB checks – the costs for the sector would be significant. This is a concern, especially since colleges are already cash-strapped."

Students enrolling on a course that involves a career in the care of children or vulnerable adults may also have to register with the ISA. "Will they be able to afford it?" asks Mason.

A further worry is complexity. "The guidelines about what is expected from colleges under the new Vetting and Barring Scheme are very complicated," says Mason. "Many colleges are having huge trouble understanding the scheme because of the various organisations issuing information about it, and the official guidelines for the education sector have only just been released for consultation. What this means is that they're getting mixed messages and, although registration begins in July, it's unlikely the final guidance for education will be published by then."

This is particularly important when it comes to Ofsted inspections, which look for best practice in safeguarding, she explains. "As it is, although colleges are very thorough in their safeguarding procedures, they aren't clear what exactly counts as Ofsted best practice. Will inspectors allow a college's own interpretation of the guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, for example? Without clearer guidance and a consistent approach, a college could have its overall Ofsted grade reduced, which could put off potential new students or potential new teachers joining the college."

There's a third issue. Under the new scheme, an employer has a duty to refer relevant information about an adult to the ISA. The idea is that teachers who behave inappropriately towards children cannot move on to a new employer without them knowing what happened. But it is not completely foolproof, because it will rely on all organisations actively reporting any issues of concern. "If a college recruits someone who left another organisation under a cloud of investigation that then never gets reported, then what? There is a loophole," says Mason.

Under the new scheme, activities relating to children and adults are classed as either regulated or controlled. The biggest issue of concern for colleges is so-called controlled activity. This refers to workers such as cleaners, catering staff and receptionists, who are not working directly with children, as would be the case with regulated activity, but still have regular contact with children around the campus. "It would appear that, under this scheme, a barred person could be employed in a controlled activity, for example, in a caretaker role. But when you consider that Ian Huntley was a caretaker, there's clearly an issue here. They welcome the Government review of controlled activity, which should address this issue. We'll know more in June regarding the outcome."

The new scheme isn't the only thing that's provoked a serious level of concern in terms of safeguarding. Prior to this academic year, Ofsted announced that it expected everyone working in a college to have a Level 2 qualification in safeguarding – which is again costly and time-consuming. "That's fine for people that work directly with young people, but Ofsted was including everyone from refectory cooks to governors," says Joy Mercer, senior quality manager, policy, at the AoC. "But we have got this stipulation changed and Ofsted has been very good at realising that there's a way of meeting their legal requirements without having to compromise common sense."

It is hoped that the same attitude will be taken with the problems surrounding the Vetting and Barring Scheme. There's no question that colleges wholeheartedly support changes that make the young people they teach safer. But it seems there remains a question as to the best way of achieving this.