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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The residential schools investigation report


I.2: Safer recruitment

6. The process for ‘vetting’ or checking the credentials of prospective workers in schools is referred to in statutory guidance as safer recruitment. All schools in England and Wales have a legal duty to comply with safer recruitment to ensure that they do not employ an individual who has been prohibited from teaching or from working with children. The purpose is to “deter and prevent people who are unsuitable to work with children from applying for or securing employment” in schools.[1] In England, schools’ responsibilities in relation to safer recruitment are set out in part three of Keeping Children Safe in Education, the statutory guidance published by the Department for Education.[2] In Wales, the Welsh Government has included safer recruitment information in its statutory guidance, Keeping Learners Safe.[3]

Disclosure and Barring Service checks

7. Barring unsuitable adults from working with children in schools and in other settings in England and Wales is currently the responsibility of the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), an executive agency of the Home Office. In England and Wales, the DBS (which replaced the Criminal Records Bureau) is responsible for undertaking checks on behalf of employers relating to a person’s previous convictions, relevant police information and whether they are prohibited from working in the role applied for, or with children (the barred list). Schools must apply to the DBS for a check of the records relating to prospective employees, volunteers or contractors.

8. The type of check depends upon the role applied for. For those working or volunteering with children in schools, enhanced certificates are available which show all spent or unspent convictions or cautions and may include police intelligence or information considered relevant by a chief officer of police.[4] Convictions will be ‘filtered’ so that a conviction will be removed from a disclosure certificate if it is the individual’s sole conviction and at least 11 years have elapsed since the date of conviction (5.5 years if committed as a child),[5] unless the offence is on the ‘no-filter’ list[6] which includes violent and sexual offences and offences against children.

9. For teachers and learning support staff and anyone applying to work in ‘regulated activity’, schools must obtain an enhanced certificate with a barred list check from the DBS. If the work is not within the definition of regulated activity, for example contractors who will not come into contact with children, or supervised volunteers, a barred list check is not available.[7]

Box 1. The definition of 'regulated activity'

Regulated activity

The legal definition of regulated activity is set out in Schedule 4 of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, as amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

Regulated activity includes:

  1. a) teaching, training, instructing, caring for or supervising children if the person is unsupervised, or providing advice or guidance on physical, emotional or educational well-being, or driving a vehicle only for children;
  2. b) work for a limited range of establishments (known as 'specified places', which include schools and colleges), with the opportunity for contact with children but not including work done by supervised volunteers.

Work under (a) or (b) is regulated activity only if done frequently by the same person, or regularly (once a week or more, or more than three days in a 30-day period).

Some activities are always regulated activities, regardless of frequency or whether they are supervised or not. This includes relevant personal care or health care provided by or under the supervision of a healthcare professional. (Personal care includes helping a child with eating and drinking for reasons of illness or disability or in connection with toileting, washing, bathing and dressing for reasons of age, illness or disability.)

10. The definition of regulated activity is complicated and sometimes difficult for employers to apply. Dr Suzanne Smith, executive director of safeguarding at the DBS, said that it is one of the main areas where the DBS receives queries and that it would be helpful if the definition were simplified to make it easier to understand, perhaps by aligning it with the simpler definition for regulated activity with vulnerable adults.[8] The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) has received many enquiries from schools seeking clarification about whether and what types of checks are required for visitors, contractors and those who attend school on a regular basis but have no contract with the school, such as doctors, speech therapists, refuse collectors or a Member of Parliament or councillor.[9]

Supervised volunteers

11. Many schools rely on volunteers, for example to assist with one-to-one reading, to provide additional learning support, to accompany school trips or to give talks and presentations. Since 2012, supervised volunteers are deemed not to be in regulated activity and therefore a barred list check is not available. An enhanced check for a supervised volunteer may be obtained by schools but is not compulsory.[10]

12. There are a number of issues concerning DBS checks for supervised volunteers.

12.1. The Inquiry heard that there may be applicants for supervised volunteer roles who are on the barred list but have a clear enhanced certificate because they have no convictions. These individuals, who pose a risk of harm to children, are permitted to volunteer to work with children in schools, albeit under supervision. Estyn and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) voiced disquiet regarding the lack of barred list checks or mandatory enhanced checks for supervised volunteers.[11] The DBS was not able to identify how many individuals were on the children’s barred list who would have a clear enhanced check, although Ms Susan Young, director of public protection at the Home Office, thought that this would be a diminishing number.[12] However, information provided by the DBS showed that in one 12-month period, from April 2019 to March 2020, a total of 265 individuals without any criminal record were added to the children’s barred list.[13] In the previous three-year period (2016 to 2019), 359 people were added to the children’s barred list who had no criminal convictions, which amounted to 31 percent of referrals.[14] This indicates that there may be hundreds of adults on the children’s barred list who would have a clear enhanced certificate and therefore be able to undertake supervised volunteer roles in schools.

12.2. It is unclear whether schools always carry out enhanced checks of supervised volunteers, as these are available but not compulsory.[15] The DBS stated that there were 21,587 enhanced checks without barred list checks on supervised volunteers in the schools sector in the year 2019 to 2020.[16] There were 24,360 schools in England and approximately 1,577 schools in Wales in the school year 2019 to 2020.[17] As most schools will recruit more than one new supervised volunteer each year, these figures suggest that many, or even most, volunteers are not DBS checked at all.

12.3. There is also concern about the level of supervision that supervised volunteers receive in schools. The Department for Education published brief guidance about supervision of volunteers in 2013, which begins with an explanation that “We start with a presumption of trust and confidence in those who work with children, and the good sense and judgment of their managers”. The supervision must be “regular and day to day” and “reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure the protection of children”.[18] The guidance gives examples of very close supervision but there is no requirement that schools follow that model because the guidance emphasises that schools have flexibility to determine what level of supervision is reasonable. The NSPCC expressed concerns that, while a volunteer technically may be supervised, in practice they may have unsupervised access to children. The NSPCC also observed that even closely supervised frequent contact with children in schools could enable a barred person to establish a relationship of trust with a child, which could be exploited outside the school setting.[19] Ms Young said that supervision for regulated activity “operates on an expectation that people with responsibility for safeguarding children will take those professional responsibilities seriously”.[20]

13. Ms Kate Dixon, director of school quality and safeguarding at the Department for Education, accepted that an individual who was barred from working with children could be a supervised volunteer in a school and that the level of supervision is entirely at the discretion of the decision-maker.[21] She also confirmed that the approach of a “presumption of trust and confidence” in those who work with children, as set out in the Department’s guidance, still stands.[22]

14. Witnesses from the Department for Education and the DBS stated that DBS checks were just one of the safeguarding measures available and schools may place an over-reliance on such checks. Dr Smith was concerned that “people have a notion that it is valid for a period of time, when, actually, it’s out of date pretty much the day after it’s arrived. It only gives a snapshot at a point of time … the DBS check is just one in a basket of measures.[23] The DBS emphasised that if the person has not come to the attention of the authorities, they will have a clean certificate.[24]

Other recruitment checks

15. In addition to DBS checks, schools must check that anyone engaged to undertake unsupervised teaching work or governance and management roles is not prohibited from doing so by a regulatory body.[25] In England, this means checking with the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) through the Department for Education, and in Wales, the Education Workforce Council (EWC).

16. Applicants’ professional qualifications must be verified where applicable. Schools must also obtain information about an applicant’s employment history and references from their last or current employer. The ISI said that there is considerable confusion about references, because Keeping Children Safe in Education is unclear about whether a written reference should be followed up with a telephone reference.[26] The guidance also expressly states that allegations which have been found to be false, unsubstantiated or malicious must not be included in a reference, even where there have been a series of allegations of a similar nature.[27]

17. Schools in England are obliged to keep a record of pre-appointment checks on a single central record.[28] There is not a parallel requirement in the Welsh guidance.

18. All teaching staff, including learning support workers, in state schools in Wales must be registered with the EWC, which maintains information about qualifications and any findings or sanctions applied. The EWC no longer relies on DBS checks for prospective registrants and instead requires self-declarations of relevant information. Mr Hayden Llewellyn, chief executive of the EWC, said that as soft intelligence was being removed from the DBS certificates and more information was being filtered out by the DBS, “increasingly, we weren’t seeing the value from the DBS process”.[29] However, schools in Wales must obtain DBS checks before employing any staff engaged in regulated activity.

Governors and proprietors

19. Since 2016, it has been compulsory for schools in England to obtain an enhanced DBS check for governors in maintained, independent, academy and free schools within 21 days of their appointment.[30] The Children’s Commissioner for Wales considers it an anomaly that there is not a parallel requirement for school governors in Wales, where enhanced DBS checks are available for governors but are not compulsory.[31]

20. Proprietors of independent schools, or the chair of a body which is the proprietor, all members of academy trusts (proprietors of academies, including free schools) and the chairs of the governing bodies of non-maintained special schools must have enhanced DBS checks.[32]

21. Any person on the children’s barred list is disqualified from being a governor of a maintained school in England or Wales.[33] However, unless they engage in any of the activities set out in Box 1, governors and proprietors of schools are not in regulated activity and therefore are not eligible for a barred list check.[34] This means that the current system does not prevent individuals who have been barred from working with children from owning or managing independent schools, and provides no means of checking whether a prospective governor of a maintained school is disqualified by reason of inclusion on the barred list.

22. The Secretary of State has the power to issue prohibition orders under section 128 of the Education and Skills Act 2008, prohibiting unsuitable individuals from the management of independent schools, academies and free schools.[35] Before an independent school, academy or free school recruits a proprietor, governor or academy trustee, as well as roles on the senior leadership team, checks must be undertaken to ensure that there is no section 128 order preventing that individual from a school management role. However, very few orders have been made. Ms Dixon stated that the Department for Education has used the power to disqualify proprietors between 10 and 20 times since 2008.[36]

Issues with safer recruitment practice in schools

23. The Inquiry heard a number of examples of schools failing to comply with safer recruitment practice. This included failing to obtain up-to-date criminal record checks or not checking in the correct name (the guidance requires schools to verify the identity of candidates), failing to obtain or follow up on references, or failing to address potential issues of concern properly in interviews with candidates.

Stony Dean School

24. Anthony Bulley was convicted in 2005 of sexual offences against boys at Stony Dean School. His recruitment as a houseparent in 1995 was flawed. There was no preliminary interview and only one reference was obtained.[37] That reference stated that Bulley’s departure from his previous post had been “slightly spoiled by a child protection issue, which in the end did not amount to anything”.[38] The same reference made clear that there were concerns about how Bulley “related to” children, which had led to him leaving by mutual agreement.[39] The local authority as Bulley’s employer (which had a copy of the reference on file) did not make any further inquiries to follow up on these matters of concern in the reference provided.[40] The local authority failed to obtain a criminal record check for ‘Nigel Bulley’ as well as ‘Anthony Bulley’, after Bulley changed his name during the early part of his employment.[41] This omission was also not noticed or corrected by the local authority, despite being notified of the name change.[42]

25. In 1998, when he was working at Stony Dean School, Malcolm Stride was arrested on suspicion of sexual offences at a different school where he had worked previously. There was never an investigation of his behaviour at Stony Dean School. While Stride was suspended from the school and on remand for offences for which he subsequently received a sentence of three years and three months’ imprisonment, the school and the local authority offered Stride a compromise agreement if he resigned. The agreement would have ensured that in the event of an acquittal, the school would not have undertaken any disciplinary investigation into his behaviour towards children at Stony Dean School and the school would not have referred Stride to the barring authorities.[43] Stride refused the offer because he maintained he was innocent of the charges. As Mr Richard Nash of Buckinghamshire County Council said, it was “wholly inappropriate” for such a settlement to be proposed.[44]

Headlands School

26. Science teacher Steven Edwards was convicted in relation to the sexual abuse of three pupils at Headlands School between 2001 and 2003. He left the school in 2004 to work at a school in a different local authority area. In 2005, when Edwards applied to return to teach at Headlands School, the new headteacher, Dr Stephen Rogers, did not comply with safer recruitment guidance in respect of obtaining references. He failed to obtain any written reference from the school where Edwards was currently working. Dr Rogers thought a telephone reference had been obtained, but he never saw a note of any telephone reference. There are no records of Headlands School making any contact with the school where Edwards was working.[45] Dr Rogers was made aware of the fact that there had been some concerns in 2003 about Edwards’ relationship with a 14-year-old pupil at Headlands School but he did not see the minutes of the strategy meeting which took place in November 2003. Edwards was asked about the 2003 allegations in his interview but no further documentation or information was obtained regarding the allegations against Edwards prior to offering him the teaching post in 2005.[46]

27. In 2007, Lindsey Collett was employed as a cover supervisor at Headlands School. She provided a Criminal Records Bureau enhanced check in her maiden name of Harrison, which was six months out of date. The school did not obtain an update or a check in her married name, although she had applied for the post in this name.[47]


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