Work placements are a key learning activity for young people, however it is obviously important to ensure that your pupils are safe. Dai Durbridge discusses how, and whose responsibility it is

Work placements are an important part of the 14-19 education and skills agenda, viewed by most as a key learning activity for young people, providing them with an opportunity to enrich their education. However, there is some confusion as to the steps required to ensure the placements are vetted in accordance with current guidance. Dai Durbridge seeks to clarify the position.

Are work placements regulated by law and supported by guidance?

As with everything else in education, work-related learning activities are subject to law and guidance. It should be remembered that for the majority of work-related learning activities, the student is offsite with no teaching staff on hand. Therefore, one would expect the law to enforce the usual standard of vetting checks to ensure those supervising and working with the students are suitable. With that in mind, it is somewhat surprising that the guidance is not as robust as one would expect, particularly with regard to the issue of criminal records bureau (CRB) disclosure which are not compulsory by law in this area.

What guidance is available?

There are three key documents to consider when thinking about child protection in work placements:

Why is there confusion about the vetting process?

Actually, the confusion is centred on the need for CRB checks, and the problem is that the different guidance provides different advice for what appear to be exactly the same situations.

For example, the employer guide (although simply an advertising piece aimed at the employer) includes useful commentary on when CRB checks are required. It says they must be considered in all of the following cases:

  • vulnerable students
  • students on placements lasting more than 15 days over an extended time-frame, especially where these involve:
    • regular lone working with an employer over long periods
    • placement is in an isolated environment
    • placement involves a high degree of travelling
  • placement has a residential element.

Note that you are asked only to ‘consider’ a check. The document goes on to say that even if a placement falls into one of those categories, it does not necessarily mean that a CRB check will be required. ‘Such a decision will depend on an assessment of the overall potential risks posed to a young person and will take into account the systems in place to minimise these risks’. This is unhelpfully vague.

The Work-related Learning Guide offers a little more by way of guidance. However, it is prefaced with a DCSF disclaimer stressing that the guide is not a complete statement of the law and no substitute for specialist advice! According to this guide, the current position regarding CRB checks in work placements is:

CRB checks are required where one of more of the following conditions is met:

  • the placement is for more than one day per week
  • it is longer than one term in any academic year
  • it is aimed at vulnerable children
  • where the workplace supervisor or a colleague will have substantial unsupervised access to a child
  • where there is a residential component.

The wording for this guidance is lifted directly from Annex A to Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education, but it does not seem to be consistent with that contained within the document published by the DCSF two months earlier – one suggests CRBs should be considered, whilst the other says they are required. There is also a contradiction as to when the length of the placement triggers the need for a CRB.

Unfortunately we are left with conflicting advice offering little assistance to the practitioner making the CRB decision. Perhaps this confusion explains why just 1% of those who supervise students at work placements have been CRB checked, leaving around half a million that have not.

So which guidance should we follow?

The correct practitioner guidance is Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education, which has been in force for just over two years.

The CRB guidance is contained within four paragraphs of Appendix 14 and is aimed specifically at extended work experience placements. In reality, they add very little by way of definitive guidance – the four paragraphs doing little more than expressing what level of contact a workplace supervisor needs to have before he is eligible for a CRB check. This is defined by law in any event. To ensure your school or college is not at risk, the safest approach is to look at the CRB eligibility criteria and consider whether, in each case, the workplace supervisor meets those criteria. If he does, obtain a CRB check.

Will this change when the ISA regime comes into force in October?

New guidance is expected. No doubt the DSCF will take the opportunity to clarify the position and produce definitive guidance covering work-related learning.

Always remember: The duty of care owed to a student remains with the school. If a student is abused on a placement and alleges that the school breached its duty of care towards him, a court will have little sympathy for the education provider that opted not to get a CRB check where the eligibility criteria was met.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2009

About the author: Dai Durbridge is a solicitor for Browne Jacobson specialising in child protection and education.