Ofsted has not turned down a single application for suspended workers to return to schools after scores of staff were caught in confusion over new safeguarding laws, Schools Week has exclusively found.
Under childcare laws, workers previously convicted of certain types of crime, or those living with someone with a conviction, face automatic disqualification from working with children under eight and must apply for a waiver to do so.
It was believed the rules applied only to early years and childcare providers, but the watchdog saw a leap in the number of waiver applications after the Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance in October 2014 clarifying that the rules also applied to schools.
The watchdog has now confirmed that after receiving more than 1,800 applications for waivers of disqualifications, it has not turned down any of them.
It also said more than half of applications were not needed in the first place. The revelations have led to calls from union bosses and legal professionals for a law change.
Figures released by Ofsted show that of 1,815 applications received since the guidance was issued, 1,105 were not required because “the role was non-relevant or the offence was spent or non-disqualifiable”.
Of those 1,185 applications, 1,241 were for waivers of disqualifications “by association”, which relate to those who live with someone with a conviction. Of the disqualification by association waiver applications, 722 were not required.
Dai Durbridge, a partner at education law firm Browne Jacobson, told Schools Week the “exceptionally confusing” DfE guidance published in 2014 forced schools to “err on the side of caution”, putting institutions and their staff under immense stress.
He said: “I think this was always going to be the ultimate outcome. The guidance presents schools with a list of relevant offences which is 30 pages long and they are told it isn’t even a comprehensive list.”
Mr Durbridge said he was forced to advise schools to pursue waivers even if there was a lack of clarity over the offences concerned, and the impact on the individuals concerned was huge.
He said: “We have dealt with one case where a headteacher’s husband was previously convicted of domestic violence against her, and she was suspended as a result of being the victim.”
Ben Thomas, Unison’s national education officer, echoed calls for a change to the law, and told Schools Week the legislation was “not an effective safeguarding tool”.
He said: “It has caused an immense amount of distress and harm, and we would hope the government would act to amend the legislation.”
An Ofsted spokesperson confirmed the watchdog had seen an increase in waiver applications following the government guidance but stated their own processes had remained unchanged.
“While we process all applications as quickly as possible, we must also investigate each application thoroughly before making a decision to grant a
waiver. This can often take time, particularly in more serious or complex cases,” he added.
A DFE spokesperson said their guidance had been welcomed by schools and supported them to determine whether applications were necessary.
She said: “As a result we have seen a significant decrease in the number of waiver applications to Ofsted.”
The figures in this article have been corrected since it was first published. The story previously stated that more than 3,000 waiver applications had been received.