18 January 2006
Sex offenders working in schools
Angela Smith has ordered a review of employment procedures
A person convicted of a sex offence against a child is still working in a Northern Ireland school, the Department of Education has confirmed.
Education minister Angela Smith said the offence was more than 15 years ago, but she had now ordered a full review.
She said she was initially worried the person "might pose a risk to children" but was reassured after finding out more about the case.
Two other cases have been identified, but these do not involve children.
The minister has now ordered a review of the way potential school employees are vetted.
"I have identified three people. Two of those are not offences against children and there was no suggestion there ever would be and the schools are entirely satisfied," she said.
"The third one does involve, some time ago, somebody just under the age of 16 but the school and the panel found that all the circumstances were known to them and decided there was not a threat to children."
The minister also confirmed that no registered sex offenders were at present working in grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland.
The minister said every school was asked if they had ever employed anyone on the sex offenders' register.
Those which were grant-aided, which is most of them, said they had not.
The Department of Education, however, is still waiting for responses from the 20 independent schools in the province.
"No child should be put at risk and I am very concerned that education authorities seem to have relied on judgments made on these individuals 15 years ago".
The minister described the system as "robust", but said she had asked for immediate action to strengthen it.
A database aimed at improving the monitoring and management of sex and violent offenders has been launched by the police in Northern Ireland.
The Violent Offender and Sex Offender Register (ViSOR) will connect police to a national computer network so that officers can share information.
Until now, police and other agencies relied on local databases to record details of offenders.
About 300 officers have been trained to use the database.
The register means information and intelligence on offenders can be quickly logged on a UK-wide database for all police forces to share and access.
Children's Commissioner Nigel Williams said he was "extremely worried" that people with convictions for sex offences were working in schools in Northern Ireland.
"I want the department to now make sure that the exact circumstances of these cases are investigated," he said.
"No child should be put at risk and I am very concerned that education authorities seem to have relied on judgments made on these individuals 15 years ago."
Sinn Fein spokesperson on children's issues, Sue Ramsey, said urgent steps need to be taken to "close any gaps" in protecting children from any adult who poses a risk.
"It is essential that the exact circumstances of these three cases are fully investigated. The protection of children from harm must come above all other considerations," she said.
SDLP education spokesman Dominic Bradley said he would be meeting Mrs Smith to ask what safeguards were in place to ensure sex offenders were not employed in schools.
"Parents and children's organisations are rightly concerned and need to know that they can have full confidence in the system of checks in force here in Northern Ireland," he said.
Ulster Unionist education spokesman David McNarry criticised the "lamentable indecision and inability" of the department "to act decisively in face of the growing anxieties over sex offenders in schools".
"The minister cannot escape criticism that her department failed to act on the Bichard Review. Nor can she escape criticism for failing to act on recommendations for improving vetting systems made by the Children's Commissioner."