Everybody would agree that we need to ensure safe environments for children in our nurseries and schools. Unsuitable people should not be allowed to work in them. In the UK concerns have been raised that the authorities may have gone too far in their aim to keep children safe.
The policy of ‘disqualification by association’ now means you could be prevented from working with children not because of any misconduct on your part but because of the misconduct of others. If you already have a job working with children you could find yourself suspended from that work even if your work record has been exemplary and you have no criminal record.
‘Disqualification by association’ comes into play if any one you live with has been convicted of a serious offence or is otherwise disqualified from working with children. The policy has been in place for a few years but was recently highlighted in the case of a teacher who lost his job following conviction for having sexual relations with one of his students; under UK law he was guilty of the offence of ‘abusing a position of trust’ (Sexual Offences Act 2003 s16). But then the headlines followed that his wife, who worked in another school, was to be suspended from her job working with children.
The ‘disqualification by association’ Regulations have been a matter of concern in some quarters ever since their introduction by the Childcare Act 2006 s75 (4) and the Childcare (Disqualification) Regulations 2009 (SI 2009: 1547). The Regulations only apply to people registered to work with children under eight and Regulation 9 clearly states that:
- > Subject to regulation 10, a person who lives –
(a) in the same household as another person who is disqualified from registration; or (b) in a household in which any such person is employed, is disqualified from registration.
At first the Regulations were applied only to people caring for children under eight in their own home as child-minders and in that context the Regulations made some sense. But then they were extended to anyone working in a school which had children under the age of eight attending.
It took some time for people to realise the consequences of this extension but slowly the truth has dawned (see e.g. ‘Teachers to be barred for living with offenders under new rules’ and ‘Schools suspend staff in child protection confusion’. The question is raised as to why someone with no convictions or other form of disbarment from working with children should be suspended simply because they live in the same house as someone who is. Surely this amounts to a disproportionate response to child protection? Further Department of Education guidance explains the thinking behind the law which:
‘guards against an individual working with young children who may be under the influence of a person who lives with them and where that person may pose a risk to children i.e. by association’ (DfE (2014) Keeping children safe in education: childcare disqualification requirements – supplementary advice, October).
What exactly ‘under the influence’ means is not elaborated on.
The campaign group UNLOCK for ex-offenders calls the arrangements ‘ridiculous’: ‘The regulations have clearly come as a surprise to thousands of people working in primary schools. Schools themselves seem unclear of how the regulations work, with many asking existing staff and new employees to make very broad declarations about not only their criminal record, but also of those that they live with. This has led to hundreds of people making declarations and being suspended as a result, where they have otherwise been working for many years with no problems’ (UNLOCK (2015) Charity for people with convictions calls for “ridiculous” ‘disqualification’ regulations for primary schools to be urgently reviewed 20 January (press release)) ‘Disqualification by association’ seems to have slipped in while no one was looking but its chickens are now coming home to roost.
Terry Thomas is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice Studies, Leeds Beckett University U.K. and a Crimcast correspondent.