Whom are you hiring?

Eamon Jubbawy writes:

“For schools, the security of their children is of primary importance. Our school system can only function if parents have faith their school’s staff when they drop off their children in the morning; schools can only function if teachers trust one-another. Part of this involves knowing the school has made thorough background checks into the histories of its employees – and that they have checked employees’ criminal histories when deciding whether they would be suitable for working with children.

The best way to protect children is to adopt a proactive approach – to prevent potential wrongdoers from ever having access to pupils. The first and best way to be proactive is to ensure that those who are prohibited from being around children are prevented from being school staff by comprehensive and efficient background checks. This is typically addressed by carrying out a DBS check on prospective employees. What most employers don’t realise, however, is how easy it is for an individual to hide a criminal record and make it seem as though their history is completely clean.

Although the DBS has issued guidance on what forms of documentation should be required before an application should be submitted, it is still the case that when a DBS check is conducted, the check is simply carried out against the identity provided on the application. The identity is taken at face value. This leaves a gap in the vetting process – without fully verifying a candidate’s identity prior to requesting a DBS check, further checks will be fruitless and offer only a false sense of security.

In 2012, a man by the name of James Ekpa obtained a false passport and a fake national insurance card in the name of Kevin Ntini, claiming to be a South African national. Mr Ekpa’s successful use of fraudulent documents meant that when he applied for work, his prospective employers carried out enhanced criminal records checks on Mr Ntini, which came back clean. As a result, Mr Ekpa obtained work at two separate special needs schools for over three years. It was only when caught shoplifting that his true identity was revealed – indeed he may have gone undetected had he not committed this particular crime.

It is impossible to be sure that a potential employee really is who they say they are without carrying out stringent identity checks when there are an estimated 20 million fake identity documents in circulation in the UK. There are high incentives to provide a false identity for individuals who have a record of crime or adverse history. Without carrying out identity checks before carrying out DBS checks, employees can hide the fact they have committed violent crime or crime involving children in the past. Thankfully in this example, Mr Ekpa was only concealing the fact that he did not have the right to work in the UK, but it acts to demonstrate how serious identity fraud can be when hiring staff in schools.

Even where the identity of an applicant is ascertained, a modern and thorough system of background checking can improve upon or supplement the required DBS check. The recent story of William James Vahey - who worked at the Southbank International School in London between 2009 and 2013 - highlights this. William Vahey committed suicide this year after the FBI issued a warrant to search his laptop for images of young children; it was subsequently revealed that Mr Vahey had a prior conviction for a sex offence in the United States that was not registered correctly by the American authorities and had been abusing children from school to school since the 1960’s. Although a DBS check may not have caught Mr Vahey, a thorough search into Mr Vahey’s adverse history, including prior negative media attention, may have furnished further details.

Regardless, the Vahey case revealed underlying issues with the collection of security data in schools. Firstly, it is not always systematic. In the words of the Independent: “...a regulatory report by the Independent Schools Inspectorate warned the central London school [Vahey’s employer] over its hiring procedures a year after Vahey was hired. The school said inspectors had complained criminal records bureau checks were not being kept up to date.” This shows that there is not substantial automation in the process of collecting background information and renewing checks. Secondly, the case demonstrates the importance of using checks as a barrier to entry for potential wrongdoers from children. Despite the fact Vahey abused children throughout his long career, children only came forward with details after his death: children tend to be reluctant to come forward to accuse their abusers, particularly when, like Vahey, the abuser is in a position of authority over them.

It has never been easier to conduct thorough checks into the histories of applicants. The internet and the spread of technology have made these checks quick, effective and accessible to everyone. Once schools are secure in the identity of an applicant and can run thorough searches against their real name, they can move forward with confidence in the security of their children and faith in their new employees.

Eamon Jubbawy is a cofounder of Onfido, an employment screening company offering a data-driven platform to help employers make fast, informed decisions on who they can trust. Onfido’s real time online background checking software is used extensively in the education sector, especially by independent schools, as a way of reducing the risks in the hiring process.”