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‘Myths and Facts for Schools’ about touch, abuse, and panic: is the tide turning at last?

December 7, 2013

Having devoted much of the last decade or so to researching and writing about the way that adult anxieties about child abuse (and misjudged ways of seeking to prevent it), have done little to protect children, while having a number of seriously damaging consequences, it was good to have a significant straw in the wind drawn to my attention by a reporter from a national newspaper.

In a variety of contexts, including schools and nurseries, sports coaching and physical education (PE) and music education, there is no doubt that risk-averse policy and practice has had a damaging effect on the experiences of children and young people, and on their relationships with adults. These arrangements, actively promoted by some organisations with an interest in fostering disproportionate anxiety and a rigid approach to ‘safeguarding’, speak more of moral panic and bureaucratic control than of careful consideration informed by professional and practical wisdom. Misjudgements of risk have led some schools and youth organisations, in effect, to treat all adults, including parents, as likely abusers; they all require to be ‘vetted’, however tenuous their contact with children and young people. At times, arguing in public about these issues has seemed both lonely and potentially dangerous and, although it seemed important to make the effort, it has sometimes felt like banging one’s head against a brick wall. However, it now seems that the tide may be turning at last – or at least, not getting any worse. At a well-attended Battle of Ideas in London recently, there was open discussion of the threat to music education and instrumental tuition resulting from responses to disclosures of abuse by a number of music teachers.

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It was also a great pleasure to note that the Department for Education (DFE) has included reference to some of my concerns in a document comparing ‘myths’ (strong stuff for a government department!) about education and childcare with the ‘facts’
As well as firing a couple of shots at mistaken assumptions and consequent overly vigorous practices around schools requiring Disclosure and Banning Service (DBS) checks (formerly known as Criminal Records Bureau checks) on any and every adult conceivably in contact with children and young people, this document addresses the panic and paranoia around inter-generational touch head-on:

 Myth: It is better for a school to have a no touch policy so that teachers are not accused of acting inappropriately if they have physical contact with a child.
 Fact: No. There is a real risk that such a policy might place a member of staff in breach of their duty of care towards pupils, or prevent them taking action needed to prevent a pupil causing harm. It is not illegal for a teacher to touch a pupil. There are occasions when physical contact with a pupil is proper and necessary, for example to demonstrate how to use a musical instrument or to give first aid. Teachers also have a specific legal power to use reasonable force to prevent pupils from hurting themselves or others, from damaging property or from causing disorder. If the force used is reasonable the teacher will have a robust defense against any accusations.

In a few words, this makes some very important points. It explodes the idea that teachers should act in a risk averse and defensive way, and makes it clear that advice or regulation against touch is simply wrong. In effect, it is insisting on the value of professional judgment as a counter to panic-induced passivity, and stressing professional responsibility and the duty of care. Given the current hysteria around child protection in music education and instrumental tuition, which is making the common mistake of thinking you can stop people doing bad things by stopping other people doing good ones, the specific mention of musical instruments is significant. Further, the reference to first aid reflects findings reported from research that nursery staff have been frightened to clean up a child’s grazed knee, or teachers have hesitated to pull a capsized pupil canoeist from raging water, in case they be accused of ‘improper’ touch.

While it will take more than a not-very-well-publicised DFE document to disrupt the panic-filled paralysis which has gripped many adults, professionals and managers in recent decades, this authoritative publication is still a step in the right direction. Just when it seemed impossible to find a reason to be cheerful related to the current dispensation in the DFE, one came along – please pass on!

Heather Piper,
6th December 2013

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