Leading article: The duty of care owed by schools

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The Independent Online

A note of moral panic is in the air again on the danger posed by paedophiles. Government ministers yesterday bluffly tried to rebut the suggestion made by the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys that Home Office policy was now being made by the News of the World, which has long been demanding that the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders be published. But it is hard not to feel suspicious that government reactions are currently being driven by red-top hysteria.

It is important to keep the matter in proportion. Most abused children do not suffer at the hands of unknown characters who have recently moved in around the corner. Stranger danger is a frightening phenomenon, but thankfully a very rare one. Most children who are abused are victims of someone in their own family - uncles, live-in boyfriends or even their own parents. There are real issues to be addressed here, but within the unglamorous everyday grind of social work, rather than through the easy gesture of a new law.

The government minister who is about to be dispatched to study how Megan's Law is working in the United States will do no one any favours if he comes back with stories of the law's popularity without counter-balancing reports on the five individuals who have been killed in vigilante violence since it was introduced. Given the apparent inability of some to distinguish between a paedophile and a paediatrician, the risk of mob law is a real one, as is the danger of driving offenders underground.

But if we are to make a realistic appraisal of the nature of risk in these matters, it is clear that some action is needed within our schools. Yesterday's Ofsted report into how schools are handling the issue was disturbing. It was commissioned at the beginning of the year by the then Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, when it was discovered there was no central register of convicted paedophiles and separate checks had to be made on List 99, a health service list currently operating under the Protection of Children Act, and the sex offenders' register.

Since then, Ofsted has found in a study of 58 schools that most had not checked whether supply teachers sent by agencies were who they claimed to be, had the qualifications they claimed, or had a criminal record. Almost 90 per cent of schools were ignoring the supply agencies' Quality Mark system set up by the Government.

Headteachers assumed that the local authority was making checks, but admitted they had not asked. The single central register, which schools can swiftly and easily access, is still not in place. This is an area where the Government can act swiftly, and must.