Why screening school staff is non-negotiable

by Ashleigh Laurent
The South African Council for Educators Act sets the compulsory registration of all educators in South African schools, irrespective of whether they are public or private schools or in the General Education and Training (GET) or Further Education and Training (FET) bands
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Screening school staff is particularly important given that these individuals come into close contact with vulnerable individuals. Crime statistics reveal that South African schools are no longer the safe havens they are intended to be. By Ashleigh Laurent, Legal Counsel at TPN Credit Bureau.

Recent months have seen a number of news reports containing allegations of sexual abuse and grooming at some schools. Additionally, there have also been several reports about the bogus qualifications of prominent figures. Both issues highlight the importance of screening employees thoroughly to ensure that statutory requirements are met and that they have the required qualifications for the position they are applying for.

According to the most recent crime statistics released by the South African Police Service (SAPS), in the third quarter of 2023, there were 34 murders and 290 rapes committed on the premises of educational institutions. Between October and December 2023, there were 24 attempted murders and 252 cases of assault/grievous bodily harm on the premises of schools, universities, colleges, daycare and aftercare facilities.

TPN’s data reveals that more than 3.3% of school employees, including teachers, sports coaches, administrators, and grounds staff have a criminal record for offenses ranging from convictions for murder, rape, abduction, theft, robbery, fraud, assault, drugs, housebreaking, and serious road infringements. More than half of these employees do not declare these convictions!

The South African Council of Educators (SACE) has only required registrants to submit a Police Clearance Certificate from January 2019. SACE’s abovementioned requirement is also applicable to registrants who are applying for updates and/or renewals but not to fully registered members. Those employed before 2019 and who did not declare a criminal conviction were able to slip through the cracks.

Why staff screening is a good idea

Schools need to screen not only prospective employees but also any employee who was employed before 2019 or has not previously been screened.

The most important areas that school employees need to be screened against are the National Child Protection Register, the National Register for Sex Offenders, and in terms of their qualifications.

The Children’s Act and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act both make it a statutory obligation for employers who offer services that allow access to children or mentally disabled persons to verify whether an employee’s name appears on Part B of the National Child Protection Register or in the National Register for Sex Offenders. This includes schools, creches, and care centres, amongst others. If an employee’s name does appear in either Register, they are not allowed to work in an environment that allows access to children or mentally disabled persons.

School principals who don’t conduct these checks and employ staff with a criminal record can be held criminally and civilly liable for failing in their duty of care to children or vulnerable people. It could also be argued that any damage to a school’s (or any organisation caring for children) reputation may have a long-term impact.

If a school employee has previously been arrested or convicted of a crime that is not a sexual offense they may, in certain circumstances, be allowed to work in an environment with children. These circumstances will depend on the nature and gravity of the crime, how long ago it was committed, and the position that the prospective employee is applying for. Schools should take guidance from their internal policies and from SACE who review cases of alleged misconduct through the Council’s established fit-to-teach committee.

It goes without saying that it’s imperative to verify any prospective employee’s qualifications in any industry. A failure to verify a job applicant’s qualifications can result in potential financial losses, legal costs, and reputational damage. Individuals who fraudulently present themselves as educators with fake qualifications have previously been arrested and charged with fraud. It’s therefore quite possible that individuals could face civil and criminal liability.

The South African Council for Educators Act

The South African Council for Educators Act sets the compulsory registration of all educators in South African schools, irrespective of whether they are public or private schools or in the General Education and Training (GET) or Further Education and Training (FET) bands. The Act states that educators who qualify for registration in terms of the Act, “must register with the council prior to being appointed as an educator” and that, “no person may be employed as an educator by any employer unless the person is registered with the council.”

SACE’s Code of Professional Ethics requires that “an educator refrain from employing any unqualified and/or unregistered person to provide education to learners in a formal institution/school in the Republic of South Africa.” Schools are required to confirm that prospective educators are registered with SACE. Its website indicates the different categories of registration and sets out the registration procedure.

The minimum registration entry level for full registration status is a diploma in education at NQF level 6.

TPN specialises in criminal background checks and verifying the qualifications of both potential and current employees. To find out more on how TPN can help with your staff screening requirements, or how TPN assists schools to improve fee collections, contact 0861 876 000 or email helpdesk@tpn.co.za.

Also read: The pros and cons of online schooling

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