Few parents will have forgotten the day they handed over their child to a nursery worker or other carer for the first time. For many, the experience would have been tinged with a sense of guilt – but all will recall the overwhelming need to trust the person into whose hands you deliver the most precious thing in your life.
The horrors that unfolded at Little Ted's Day Nursery in Plymouth will increase the anxieties of couples who, with the aid of the Government, have turned to professional childcare in ever greater numbers over the past decade. According to the National Day Nurseries Association, 15,500 nurseries in Britain cater for 700,000 pupils. Pre-school children spend an average of 21 hours a week in nurseries, a study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families found recently.
The chief safeguard is the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted). All pre-schools must register with the inspectorate, which visits nurseries within seven months of their opening and then again every three years.
But there are limits to what Ofsted can achieve. Its most recent assessment of Little Ted's, in February 2008, found that it provided a "good quality" of care, with children "properly safeguarded" from harm or neglect and all staff appropriately vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB).
It is the responsibility of the nursery owner – be it an individual, a charity or local authority – to ensure that CRB checks are made. Ofsted carries out further assessments to make sure adequate background and employment histories of staff have been obtained.
Yet criminals such as Vanessa George, who had worked for six years as a classroom assistant without raising suspicion, can slip through the net. Tricia Pritchard, of Voice: the union for education professionals, said the overwhelming majority of carers, most of whom are paid the minimum wage, were committed to providing a safe environment for their pupils. But she admitted there was little that could be done to stop a determined abuser.
"Like any of these checks they are only any good on the day they are made," she said yesterday.
"Someone might be clear on paper, but this might mean they have just never been caught. With all of these things if someone is committed to carrying out these offences they will do so regardless." One further safeguard that is almost certain to gain support now is the call for mobile phones to be banned in some nursery areas.
"Mobile phone [technology has] moved on so quickly," Ms Pritchard added. "They are so small you can hold them in the palm of your hand and they have very powerful cameras, which means you can get pictures on to the internet within minutes."
The children abused at Little Ted's were so young they could not explain what had happened to them. This, according to professionals, made them an ideal target for paedophiles.
While Ofsted insists that nurseries operate with an adequate child-to-staff ratio and policies to ensure a pupil's dignity, there will always be times when a member of staff might be alone with a child, such as changing their nappy or giving potty training.
Although Oftsed has the ability to close a nursery that does not meet its criteria, Ms Pritchard claimed that the watchdog rarely did so. She said: "Most professionals would agree that Ofsted's powers are not strong enough and we don't feel inspections are rigorous enough. There is such a demand for places it is often in no one's interest to close a nursery down. While they might slap a notice on somewhere, it is always the last resort to shut it."