We need policies not scapegoats

The pervs are everywhere - under the bed, in the gym, in the classroom, in a chatroom near you. The message to parents in the lurid newspaper headlines is that it is no longer safe to send your children to school. As ever, the government is to blame for every miscreant who stalks our streets.

As we went to press, the fate of the Education Secretary was in the balance. If Ruth Kelly is forced to resign or if she is demoted, it will be for the wrong reasons.

Ever since she was barracked during her first speech to teaching unions, Kelly has struggled. She has not asserted herself in her department. More importantly, she has not asserted herself against the interference of the Prime Minister's Office, which under this administration has run education. The only one of her predecessors who managed to forge an approach of his own was Charles Clarke.

Instead, when Kelly was told to reject the A-level reforms suggested in the Tomlinson report, she did so. When she was told to "sort out" school meals, at the behest of a chef, she did so. And now, when told to present a flagship Education Bill that has achieved the rare feat of being both unimaginative and provocative, she has done so. In the tense few weeks before the legislation is published, it will be Downing Street, and not the Department for Education and Skills, that will determine the compromises required to placate Labour MPs. This is the battle for Tony Blair's future, and all sides know it.

And yet Kelly is not guilty of the crime of which she stands accused - letting loose a "roll-call" of paedophiles on our schoolchildren. She may be guilty of a lack of judgement, but this is a more minor offence. Despite their worst efforts, the baying media mob, as Peter Wilby points out (page 10), has uncovered only a handful of unsavoury characters who have been allowed to work in schools.

No parent in their right mind would feel comfortable knowing that their child is being exposed to risk. It is not good enough to dismiss concerns by talking idly of risk being a fact of life. All reasonable effort should be made to minimise the likelihood of children being exposed to, and damaged by, wrongdoers. However, a sense of proportion is required. A man who has sex with a 15-year-old girl has broken the law and deserves punishment (even if he marries her later). But he is no Ian Huntley. In any case, the Soham killer was not caretaker at the school of his victims, so it is not clear what vetting might have stopped him committing his crimes.

Policy in this area was a mess before Soham and remains so now. For that, ministers, civil servants and educationalists are equally to blame. It must surely be sensible to collate all sex offenders on a single database. That list should divide offences and punishments into categories, from the single caution for looking at a perverted website (one hit on a site might suggest a mistake, however unlikely; repeat hits suggest otherwise), to the man who has sex with an under-age girl (boy 17: girl 15 is somewhat different from man 47: girl 15), to the violent offender. The way these offenders are treated must vary. Decisions about their appropriateness for particular kinds of work must take into account a number of factors, many subjective. That is why a panel of assessors, independent of ministers, should be established. Furthermore, when it comes to minimising risk, the most dangerous place for a child is the home. Children are far more likely to be murdered, raped or abused in other ways by a member of their family than by an employee of an institution.

The same newspapers that rail against a government for "nanny state" tendencies attack it for seeking to show discretion in one of the most complicated areas of social policy. It would be unfortunate if Ruth Kelly joins a growing list of ministers who have been forced out for mistakes that were only nominally theirs to make. The system is to blame in more ways than one. Britain is run by gentleman and lady amateurs, politicians with little experience of outside work who are rotated with unseemly haste, often moving just when they are getting to grips with their portfolios. Instead of receiving a cursory briefing from their mandarin minders before being handed their first red box, ministers should be sent on training courses where they might learn management skills and, who knows, become versed in their subject area.

Do women make a difference?

Fraternal (or should one use a different term?) greetings to Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for joining the still small ranks of women world leaders. At the last count, less than a dozen of the 191 countries represented at the UN had female heads of state or government. The most prominent are Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, Gloria Arroyo, president of the Philippines, and New Zealand's Helen Clark, about whom the NS has already waxed lyrical. Alongside them are female leaders from Finland, Latvia, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Ireland (titular) and Sao Tome and PrIncipe.

Does this mark the start of something new? Probably not. Should it? Only if one believes that gender affects political outlook. Practice thus far does not support such optimism, and the portents - Laura Bush pushing Condoleezza Rice for the White House - are not encouraging either.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Why British men are rapists