Heads and teachers will be barred from working in schools in future if they live with someone who has a conviction for a violent or sexual crime, according to new rules.
The regulations, which also cover school support staff such as teaching assistants and dinner ladies, originally only applied to child-care centres – where they have been in place for around five years. Now, however, heads have been told they will also apply to schools.
Anyone providing education or child-care for children aged five or under now faces disqualification if they are found to be living with someone with a violent or sexually criminal past. They will also be barred from providing child-care for anyone aged eight or under.
In each case, this would include anyone who has been cautioned for any offence of either nature. The regulations cover convictions against adults or children.
Kathy James, director of policy and campaigns for the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: "This is a sledgehammer to crack a nut."
One of the biggest dilemmas for the schools will be working out who is covered by the new regulations. All infant-school headteachers, for instance, come into contact with children aged five and under, as do midday supervisors.
A briefing paper on the new regulations drawn up for leaders of the NAHT says: "Should someone knowingly continue to work with or permit staff members who are disqualified by association [the term used for anyone falling foul of the regulations], they are committing a criminal offence punishable by up to six months in prison and/or a fine.
"There are a number of important issues that still need clarification... One of these is the definition of childcare in relation to schools... It seems, for example, that … clubs that could be considered child-care are such things as breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, which simply offer a form of child-minding facility." Other clubs, such as music or sporting activities, are likely to be exempted.
However, Ms James said: "It could, for instance, cover a teenage son who gets into fisticuffs on a Saturday night and accepts a police caution as a result." Those identified can apply for a disqualification waiver – but they will face suspension while they are waiting for a verdict.
Other staff, it is argued, may be reluctant to bring to life a conviction of a family member in the distant past or be nervous about asking colleagues in a flat-share whether they have a criminal past.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said the legislation was not "new", adding: "The disqualification criteria apply to all staff in schools who work in early years provision and child-care provision such as breakfast clubs and after-school care for children up to the age of eight. Schools and governing bodies should use their judgement in deciding which staff are covered and we have recently provided further information to help them understand the requirements."
Headteachers say they were only told the legislation applied to schools just before the last half-term break.