Leading Belfast school carried out ‘outdated or non-existent’ safeguarding checks on some staff over a 16-year period

Leading Belfast school carried out ‘outdated or non-existent’ safeguarding checks on some staff over a 16-year period

A leading school in Northern Ireland has confirmed that members of staff had out-of-date safeguarding checks or no background checks on record at the school over a 16-year period.

Checks on all adults working or volunteering in schools are carried out by Access NI on a system set up by the Department of Justice in 2008. The checks are designed to recognise unspent and, where relevant, spent criminal convictions.

In May 2024, a Belfast city centre school discovered that members of staff were in possession of disclosure and ban checks that were carried out before Access NI existed – or that the school had no record of background checks on them.

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A source at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution said: “When we discovered what was happening we were shocked, then horrified and very concerned. There is clearly something wrong when a school can say that safeguarding checks are in place but many of them are missing or pre-date the relevant checks required.

“We accept that the pre-Access NI checks were clear prior to the subsequent checks now in the hands of Access NI, but they were long out of date and for the situation to continue seemingly unnoticed for a period of 16 years is, well, shocking, especially in 2024 when safeguarding is seen as a vital and basic element of school life and pastoral care.”

A total of 17 adults working at the voluntary secondary school received an email from the Assistant Bursar on 21 May 2024, and were told: ‘Following a review of our Access NI records, we have discovered that you have either previously completed an Access NI check or we have no record of a check being completed. You all need to apply for an Access NI check and I have enclosed instructions.’

07/02/2024 Photo by Justin Kernoghan RBAI.(Image: Justin Kernoghan)

Every adult who had background checks carried out before 2008 returned clean reports. All 17 Access NI checks requested were completed before 25 June 2024 and, although some were processed before the end of the period, several were still waiting to hear back from the checking service as RBAI closed in the summer.

Janet Williamson, director of the Inst, said: “In late May 2024, as part of the annual safeguarding checks and ahead of the annual internal audit, an anomaly in the check records was identified. This prompted an internal mapping exercise to cross-reference Access NI records with the staff whose check preceded Access NI.

“Of the 157 staff on the payroll, 17 were identified as having clean records through the pre-Access NI process. The School proactively initiated the process to ensure all 17 identified staff were subsequently checked by Access NI. All staff have now completed their Access NI, with the returns to date all clean.

“There is mandatory annual safeguarding training for all staff, including full adherence to ED policies and procedures. We will continue to use Access NI as part of the recruitment process. Visitors must sign in at reception.

“We have been proactive in identifying and addressing procedural anomalies and want to assure parents and guardians, past, present and future, of students and young visitors to the school of their safety and well-being.

RBAI is a voluntary secondary school whose motto is Quaerere Verum: Seeking Truth(Image: Justin Kernoghan)

“The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is an absolute priority and we have policies and procedures in place to ensure their protection. These are reviewed and updated regularly and are in line with Department for Education guidance.

“Every Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) inspection over the past 10 years has reported that safeguarding arrangements continue to reflect guidance issued by the Department for Education.

“In the most recent ETI Sustainable School Improvement Inspection in 2020, it was reported that “pupils feel safe at school and know what to do if they have any concerns about their safety or wellbeing”.

An RBAI source said: “The school’s annual safeguarding checks have failed in 16 years to highlight this very serious issue.
“Ten years ago, in 2014, during a general inspection of ETI, a senior member of staff signed off that all employees had gone through the correct verification procedures.

“But it is now clear, thanks to details emailed to staff by Assistant Bursar, that all the necessary up-to-date checks were not in fact in place. This was six years after Access NI was introduced. And from 2014, another 10 years passed before the issue was finally discovered.”

The headteacher responded: “The School reaffirms that the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our priority. We have been and will continue to be proactive in identifying and addressing any administrative and procedural safeguarding anomalies.

“If you or anyone else has any specific concerns about the safeguarding of a student, these should be raised with our Head of Safeguarding or the relevant authorities.”

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