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Pon students at risk through lack of checks

Melanie Butler and Claudia Civinini write

Italian students arriving in Britain and Ireland as part of the EU-funded Pon scheme are at risk of sexual abuse because many of them are attending language centres which have not had to check the criminal records of teachers, staff and host families, Gazette research reveals.


An analysis of UK language centres receiving Pon students revealed that 40 per cent were either not accredited or had not yet been inspected for child safeguarding, including criminal record checks. Around 7 per cent of these centres had not been inspected by anybody, including three operations run by Spanish agents, two owned by Roman Catholic organisation Opus Dei, and one whose website, badly translated from the original Italian, suggested it catered exclusively to Pon students.


In Ireland 46 per cent of schools listed were not covered by any safeguarding requirements because they were not members of schools association MEI, which is alone in the country in insisting centres check the criminal records of both teachers and host families.


Statistically, the risk of abuse of under-18s arriving for a three-week language course is low – just 1 in 1,000 in the UK and around 1.5 in 1,000 in Ireland, the same level of risk as dying in a skiing accident. However, good safeguarding procedures would considerably reduce the risk to the approximately 30,000 students a year expected to take part in the €3billion Pon scheme designed to improve levels of English through a combination of overseas language courses and compulsory examinations.


Trinity College London, whose tests are approved for Pon, provides a list of centres in both countries offering courses leading to their exam. They emphasise clearly, though, that they do not ‘accredit, endorse or quality assure’ the listed schools. Exam boards do not inspect language centres in Britain, as this is done by the British Council, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) or Ofsted, the government inspection scheme. All three have strict rules on safeguarding under-18s, although the British Council only introduced mandatory criminal record checks in January 2014.


Italian language travel agents have called for their government to make it obligatory for secondary schools receiving Pon funding to book through agencies, on the grounds that they are more familiar with schools in the UK and are obliged to abide by Italian safeguarding law. Talking to the Gazette, Davide Bresquar, spokesperson for agents’ association Ialca, emphasised that the need for safety was ‘fundamental’, and praised Britain for being at the forefront of safeguarding regulations.


‘For us the British Council has always been a point of reference and we rely on its checks and inspections, as it would be difficult for us agents to check directly,’ Bresquar said. ‘Agents always find out about failed supervision of students after the events have occurred, so it is fundamental for us to refer to inspections that verify that all requirements are actually met.’


Some Ialca members, however, don’t appear to actually read the inspection reports, according to a Gazette analysis of over a hundred schools featured on the agents’ websites. The vast majority of schools we looked at are accredited by the British Council, but 16 per cent have not yet been inspected for safeguarding and criminal record checks, a better result than for schools in the general Pon list. Results for different agencies were varied, with one agent having no schools which met the safeguarding requirements, while all seventeen schools represented by Lingue nel Mondo had passed. Three out of the five agencies we checked thoroughly represented at least one school which had failed to meet the standards in either safeguarding or teaching in the judgement of British Council inspectors.


Invited to comment on our analysis, Ialca replied that its code of conduct did not currently ‘take into considerations the judgements of the British Council’ as its policy covered 25 countries. Instead agents invest in education fairs and familiarisation trips ‘to build solid relationships with the providers’.


English UK told the Gazette it was preparing a Pon training workshop in Naples, and Ialca made clear that it supported free training programmes. Results of all British Council inspections are available free on the British Council website. A list of schools in the UK and Ireland which have passed safeguarding and are open to Pon students appears on pages iv and v of the May Gazette EU supplement (see digital.elgazette.com).