Leading article: A question of responsibility


After the Soham murders, it was generally assumed that anyone with a conviction for any form of sex offence involving children would henceforth be banned from working with minors. It was surprising, therefore, to learn that the Department for Education helped to secure a job for Paul Reeve, a physical education teacher cautioned for accessing banned images of children on the internet and placed on the police's sex offenders register. Ordinarily, Mr Reeve would have been added to the Department for Education's list of those banned from working with children, the so-called "List 99", but it was decided that the risks of allowing him to teach were acceptable.

Mr Reeve was eventually forced to resign when Norfolk police made their concerns known to the school. But that has not been the end of the matter. People are now, understandably, demanding to know why the Department for Education supported this man's application. There are also questions about how many other sex offenders have been helped in this way. According to the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, the issue is "complex". But is it really? It seems quite simple: surely no one on the sex offenders register should be permitted to work with children. And surely it is possible to enforce this.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that there is no standard database of sex offenders. Separate lists are held by different public bodies. For instance, it turns out that those on the police's sex offenders register are not automatically placed on the Education Department blacklist. This needs to change; Ms Kelly yesterday indicated that it would. In a statement to Parliament, she announced legislation to standardise the vetting system, along with a review of past cases where sex offenders might have been approved to work in schools.

The responsibility of ministers to make the final decision on clearing individual teachers to work in schools - the source of this scandal - should also surely be scrapped. The role of central government is to set down policy and strategy, then leave it up to local communities to implement.

As for Ms Kelly, she has certainly been a somewhat unfortunate Education Secretary, and there are questions over her suitablity for the post. She began her tenure 12 months ago with an embarrassing U-turn over the Tomlinson report, since when things have got steadily worse. She is now embroiled in a bitter row over school reform. If she is to resign, it should be related to her handling of her brief. Calls for her to resign over a faulty school vetting system that was in place long before she arrived in office are misplaced.

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