As the painful disclosures from one of the (other) educational beacon institutions of Manchester and the North West are cognate with much of my research and writing over the last decade, a brief reflection on the publication today of two critical reports on its child protection procedures seems in order. Sadly it is necessary to preface what follows by stressing that: I take child abuse and protection very seriously (it having been my specialism as a previous social worker); I recognise the damage done by inappropriate and abusive relationships; I deplore any exploitation of children through power and charisma; and I feel huge sympathy for all those coping with the hurt and grief caused by recent tragic events.
This being said, there is something grimly predictable about the apparent focus of the negative reports, and the way they are being covered by the media. Following a successful prosecution of a staff member for historic abuse, further police inquiries, and further (mainly historic) allegations, Chetham’s finds itself in the eye of an immediate storm, with another and longer-term one about to pile-in.
I have no brief to defend the school and those responsible for it at a senior level – and from one perspective it could be concluded that there has been a degree of carelessness in some areas of ‘safeguarding’. It is surprising these days to find a school where even a small number of CRB checks are outstanding, and clarity about whether pupils should and actually do ever receive instrumental tuition in teacher’s homes seems a reasonable expectation. However, most of the shortcomings picked-up by national and local inspectors are essentially bureaucratic and procedural – reflecting the mechanistic and form-filling approach to child protection which now dominates what is called ‘good safeguarding practice’. The danger of this approach is that it concentrates on means rather than ends, and actually protects adults and their employers at least as much as it really protects children. Acting out safeguarding, so senior managers can feel safer, does not necessarily deliver safety. While it is true that incidents of abuse have occurred (and obviously all are properly condemned), it is far from clear that they would have been prevented by the School having been better at performing child protection in the prescribed manner. What is clear is the pupils’ reported feeling of security quoted in the heading above – and that type of feeling does not come from filling in the right forms. Risk is unavoidable, and conducting risk assessments (and filing them away as evidence) is no substitute for fostering a culture characterised by wisdom, good judgment, trust, and open-ness.
The obvious danger is that Chetham’s, like others before it, comes under such pressure that it ends up throwing out the baby with the bath water. Just as many teachers reported during research that they felt professionally hamstrung by guidelines and regulations specifying exactly how they could (or actually could not) touch children in their care, and sports’ coaches described their anxiety and hurt at in effect being treated as potential pedophiles, there is a risk that the interpersonal and institutional alchemy of musical education at the highest level will be destroyed by the juggernaut of routinised and bureaucratic approaches to safeguarding.
So, while my heart goes out to the casualties from any incidents of abuse, I also feel for the senior staff of an estimable specialist school, who will need to keep a very clear eye and firm grasp on what really matters in music education – which uses a different language from that which their critics are likely to be speaking. Obviously, choices are not black-and white, and there are fine judgments to be made – but such is the moral heat and media attention stoked by all reports of child abuse that the senior staff at Chetham’s will be really earning their salaries in the coming months. It would be good if everyone recognised that the huge majority of teachers are not interested in the sexual abuse of pupils, and also that it is not in schools where children are at the most risk.