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

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 actually 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 PE, and music education, there is no doubt that risk-averse policy and practice (which purports to protect children but is more obviously designed to protect adults and their employers from allegation and prosecution) 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. The problem has spread into the area of vetting adults in contact (however tenuously) with children in schools and elsewhere, where misjudgements of risk have led some schools in effect to treat all adults, including parents, as likely abusers. At times, arguing in public on 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, recently discussing the threat to music education and instrumental tuition resulting from likely responses to disclosures of abuse by a number of music teachers, at the well-attended Battle of Ideas in London was a generally enjoyable and positive experience YouTube channel.

Given this background, it was a pleasure to note that the 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’ (read here).  As well as firing a couple of shots at mistaken assumptions and consequent overly vigorous practices around schools requiring DBS checks on any and every adult conceivably in contact with children and young people, this document addresses the panic and paranoia around intergenerational 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 defence 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 normal 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 with colleagues, of nursery staff frightened to clean up a child’s grazed knee, or a teacher hesitating 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

Kim Allen – poverty still matters

There has been a rash of announcements from Sir Michael Wilshaw (Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills) in the last few days. Education in this fair isle has been battered, yet again, by the PISA results that locate us as very, very average in the global rankings.  Rather than blame the 30 years of GERM warfare our education has endured (read here) Sir Michael has come out swinging at teachers who “confuse friendliness with familiarity”, a “poverty of expectation”, and “background chatter, inattention and horseplay” (read here, here and here). These faults are presented as responsible for the ‘two nation’ gap in outcomes, where a ‘regional lottery’ consigns many children to an inadequate education. A key point from Sir Michael,

I suppose what I would say to them [regions that are struggling] is to raise your aspirations and make your aspirations for your young people really clear and that poverty is no barrier to success and I think that is what London has proved more than anything. (BBC 11/12/13)

So poverty as inability to afford things, payday loans, the stresses and hardships of want  and need, a lack of jobs for young people, elderly brothers and sisters not in education or training… are no longer a factor.  Read Ruth Levitas’ (2012) ‘The Just’s Umbrella: Austerity and the Big Society in Coalition policy and beyond‘ for a full catalogue of the state of the nation. The only real factors are bad teaching and poverty of aspirations… 

Normally when you read this stuff, and there’s a lot of it, don’t you just wish someone would step forward and speak a little sense to this stentorian finger pointing?

Step forward Kim Allen on last night’s Channel 4 news… click here.  It’s a very brief appearance and right at the end but a clear message that poverty still matters.

Kim is currently working on the ESRC funded project Celebrity and Youth project with Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey (Brunel University). To learn more about her research on class, aspiration and education go here or here.

Great work Kim!

James Duggan


Getting Collaboration Wrong and the Biases of Leadership

It began with a hit of sugar.  Moments before his high-speed delivery James Duggan (Getting Collaboration Wrong and the Biases of Leadership) downed his high-octane chocolate bar.  It was the story of his PhD and how it moved from being a thesis about cultural change to one about leadership and collaboration.  The story included changes of supervisory team and changes of focus amidst rapid changes in political and policy contexts and the crisis ridden economic environment of communities.  It was a story about the myths of leadership and the reduction of collaboration to just another form of followership.

In our different ways – we the audience – have also experienced the uncertainties, the complexities, the rapid changes affecting our personal and professional lives.  It was a story that hit home. In my mind, the very word ‘collaboration’ carries with it the uneasy connotations of submission to an invading power as in war time.  And with the rapid-fire privatisations of the public sector impacting on the working lives of people in education, health, the community and social services there are increasing numbers of professionals and their clients who feel under attack by invading forces.

James forcefully argued that in response to the increasing fragmentation experienced across the public sector due to the privatization of services, the myth of leadership had taken hold.  He quoted  O’Reilly and Reed (2010: 961)  who refer to this increasing reliance on ‘leaders’ to fix situations as ‘leaderism’. It:

“potentially alleviates and absorbs the endemic tensions between politicians, managers, professionals and the public inherent in NPM [New Public Management] systems by drawing them together into a unifying discourse of a leading vision for their services in which they, collectively, play a major role.”

We can see it in the ‘superheads’ who are brought in to ‘fix’ failing schools just as much as we can see it in the call for a political leader to solve the issues of the day.  It is embedded in the heroic pervasive neoliberal image of the captain of industry who single handedly conquers a market and generates wealth.  Without such people, so the argument goes, we would all be helpless.

Yet James went on to show what in our hearts and our experiences we already know, it is just a myth.  The paucity of thinking in such views was neatly summed up in a quote from a policy document heralding the new thinking under a new leadership:

“What we do not yet know is quite what we are hoping to achieve through the big thinking and the small starts, what the partnership working of 2013 will look actually look like and how we will get to the point at which we know. “

There was no specification of the ‘big thinking’, merely the aspiration that somehow through ‘collaboration’, it would happen, and then the point would be reached “at which we know”.

What exactly is collaboration?  Again James showed the paucity of thinking behind this concept in the minds of managers and policy makers.  In James’ view collaboration is a highly complex mode of operation that in the managerialism of contemporary organizational practice is too often typically reduced to performance indicators.  For example, rather than thinking through how collaboration between different organisations may be achieved, each organisation would create incentive structures appropriate for their own organization, leading to a tick box culture.

In order to circumvent the managerialism and actually address real issues and needs as one head teacher put it “We’ll do what needs to be done and tick the box afterwards”.  That is to say, if something right happens, it is often despite not because of the managerialist performance criteria.  More cynically, as James pointed out, innovations happen and a school may be caught up in an innovation which leads to a degree of success and the leader then takes the credit for something that he or she had little concrete part in.  In James’ view, innovation is the result of a ‘co-production’ by many actors and agencies in a massively complex system.  This complexity is reduced and appropriated by managerialism and privatisation.  The success is trumpeted as the heroic accomplishment of the leader modeled after the practices of the private sector.

When James came to his last powerpoint slide, the debates began.  The questions were many:

How do you reclaim “big society” without it falling back into policy driven, market driven managerialism?


What is the role of people’s agency in innovation and collaboration?


What would it mean for collaboration, innovation and co-production to work? what does working look like?

In whose interests does it work?

Finally, James’ initial sugar input had all but exhausted itself and an end had to be called.  But this was not the end of the story…..  through great collaborative endeavor we repaired to the local hostelliery for supplementary inputs of energy and the debates continued.  Thanks James, a great seminar!!

John Schostak

One to one tuition in the dock? The crisis in music schools

ESRI’s Heather Piper joined an impressive line-up including Prof. Frank Furedi, Dr. Susan Hallam, Piers Hellawell, Tom Hutchinson and Claire Fox  at the Battle of Ideas 2013 to discuss ‘One to one tuition in the dock? The crisis in music schools‘.  The website explained the rationale for the session:

“Over recent months, the actions of predatory adults and their often appalling effects on children and young people have hit the headlines: the Jimmy Savile scandal; high-profile arrests associated with Operation Yewtree and most recently, two convictions for sexual abuse at Chetham’s School of Music. Further allegations of abuse are currently under investigation at world famous music schools such as Chetham’s, the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Purcell School, Wells Cathedral School, St Mary’s Music School and nationally, police continue to appeal for victims and witnesses to come forward.

Music teaching in the UK is in turmoil. But is the understandably intensified scrutiny of the culture and practice of music schools going too far, and placing thousands of dedicated music teachers under unfair suspicion, and impinging on their ability to teach music. For many music teachers, the ability to position an instrument and teach muscle memory through physical direction is a crucial part of the teaching process – as it is in other disciplines like dance and sport, where this has also become an issue. RPS Honorary Member, violist Rosemary Nalden, has spent the last 20 years running the Buskaid Soweto String Project and says: ‘you cannot teach a stringed instrument without at some stage physically putting your hands on your pupil. If I want to put a violin under your chin, I have to deal with you physically’. The Musicians’ Union takes a more precautionary view, advising its members to ‘avoid all physical contact [because] any physical contact with pupils can be potentially subject to misinterpretation or even malicious allegations’.

So, how do we protect pupils from abuse without destroying the ability of music teachers to pass on their complex specialist skills to future generations? Will no-touch policies protect young would-be musicians from abuse or impair their ability to learn how to handle instruments? Is the one-to-one teaching model unsustainable? Can specialist music schools survive, and how do we separate the exacting demands of music, and music teaching, from an alleged culture of abuse, intimidation and bullying?”

The discussion is now available to view on YouTube.

If you would like to read more about this subject, Heather, Stephen Rogers and I wrote a paper ‘Managerial Discourse, Child Safeguarding, and the Elimination of Virtue from In Loco Parentis Relationships: an example from music education‘ in Power and Education.  The paper explores the consequences of the NSPCC and the Musician Union’s Keeping Children Safe in Music campaign, for which the video below was made:

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about that.

James Duggan

The Games and Learning SIG Network Meeting

Well Christmas is approaching meaning that I will soon be dusting off my polite but clear you’ll-push-me-to-violence Grinch act when someone asks me if I want to a board/ fun/ party game instead of drinking and eating more.  I’m not a huge fan of play or games. One day we non-ludic people will emerge from the shadows and be greeted with the respect we deserve, and not being chided with deeply insensitive taunts such as, ‘Oh come on, don’t be boring play charades…’  So, I’m a little confused how I’ve ended up researching games… but I seem to be.

Last week Nic Whitton and I travelled to Portsmouth University for the meeting of the Games and Learning SIG.  In the morning we visited the excellent Mary Rose museum to meet a curator whom asked us to explore the museum and develop ideas for games to bring the artefacts and history to life.  The museum doesn’t have a huge budget for developing games and wanted the games that are developed to be ‘timeless’ and so not in need of constant updating but also to fit within the constraints of the building and flow of the building.  Keep them interested but keep them moving on, was high on the priorities.  Watch this space for what we came up with…

BZr5fImIAAADOFsThere was a ‘show and tell’ workshop, the next morning, where members could demonstrate their latest game incarnations… and I started to become ever so slightly taken with the potential of games in learning.  The reason for this was Alex Moseley (University of Leicester) and Simon Brookes’ (University of Portsmouth) Porthampton University scenario (read a blog post about it here).  With fairly minimal explanation a group of seven of us found ourselves in the scenario where we were members of staff at the Porthampton University geography department.  Our students had flown to Portswana in South Sudesia and when they arrived at the airport they were separated, a student was mugged and reports of civil unrest developed were confirmed and we were faced with the task of resolving the situation.  What was so great about the activity was that we didn’t know what we were meant to do but gradually we tracked down websites for a council, a local paper, an embassy, various Twitter accounts that kept the story moving along, and finally we had to deal with phone calls from irate parents and confused project staff.  I started off embarrassed and incredulous but ended up immersed.  Simon uses a similar format for the students on his enterprise module where they have to manage a business in the imaginary world of Porthampton (read about it here).  A group have used Porthampton to host a music festival and Simon is open to others using the space and sites to develop their own projects.  If the Conservatives win an outright majority in 2015 I may start up an expat community there.

James Duggan