No teachers screened by Education Department for sexual offences

13 June 2017 - 21:44 By Katharine Child
An empty classroom. File photo.
An empty classroom. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

The Education Department has not screened a single new teacher‚ principal or official against the National Sexual Offenders Register to see if they are convicted of sexually harming a child.

The Department says that they do not employ teachers and that it is provincial education departments’ job to screen new teachers to ensure they don’t have a criminal record for sexual offences.

Three provincial education departments have however confirmed that they do not use the offenders’ register‚ which is run by the Justice Department‚ to screen teachers‚ with one citing its inaccessibility as a reason.

The register can be accessed through a request to the registrar by any potential employer‚ including NGOs and churches‚ wanting to hire staff to work with children. The register‚ which came into effect in 2015‚ is to ensure that no one convicted of sexually assaulting a child‚ is employed in a position where they will supervise children.

It is against the law not to screen staff for sexual offences‚ which the Department has acknowledged.

Democratic Alliance MP Terri Stander recently heard national education department officials complaining at a parliamentary meeting that they do not have access to the register in order screen potential employees.

Stander‚ hearing the complaints‚ submitted parliamentary questions and was told by the Justice Department that zero attempts had been made by the Basic Education Department to request a screening of an employee against the names of those contained in the register.

She was furious: "If they have never applied for access to the register [it means] they have never screened a teacher against it."

"The Department of Basic Education has put our children at risk of sexual abuse and assault."

Stander has also asked the Social Development Department if the Basic Education Department has requested access to the Child Protection Register‚ which it runs‚ in order to screen current and potential staff.

This register includes the names of criminals convicted of sexually harming children as well as teachers disciplined at schools for serious offences.

The Social Development Department has yet to respond to Stander's parliamentary questions - asked nearly a month ago. The Department did not respond to questions from The Times.

Basic Education Department spokesman Elijah Mhlanga told The Times: "In terms of the Employment of Educators Act‚ the Department of Basic Education is not the employer of educators. This power is vested in the Head of the Provincial Departments of Education."

Basil Manuel‚ National Professional Teachers Organisation of SA executive director‚ said: "I can tell you they do not access the register."

He said the fact the register was not used had long been a complaint of the union.

Mala Mtima‚ Eastern Cape education spokesman‚ admitted that they do not use the register and said that they rather relied on the SA Council for Educators’ [SACE] list of banned teachers to ensure staff‚ who were convicted sex offenders‚ were not hired.

It is unknown how often the SACE updates their list of teachers fired for assault and how much reliance they put on schools to report such incidents to them.

Western Cape Education Department spokesman Jessica Shelver said the department reported cases of sexual abuse and other serious misconduct to SACE.

"We can’t confirm whether other provinces have reported every case‚" she said.

Shelver said the Western Cape department also used other methods to screen teachers‚ including the screening of public service employee records.

The department relies on a vetting company "to check the sexual offences register‚ as well as court cases that may not have been recorded yet in the Sex Offenders Register‚" she said.

"This approach therefore casts a wider net than simple reliance on the Sex Offenders Register. Meanwhile‚ Persal and SACE registrations provide us with information on cases that education departments have processed. The Gauteng Education Department said it also used SACE records to vet employees and that it checked the Social Development Department's child protection register when vetting teachers.

Child rights activist Joan van Niekerk said: "To be honest there is no point to the register then‚ if the Department of Basic Education does not use it."

Editor's note: This article has been amended to more accurately reflect the comment of Western Cape Education Department spokesman Jessica Shelver.