ESRI@BERA – A symposium report

This month saw this year’s British Educational Research Association Conference at the University of Manchester. Widely regarded as the ‘showpiece’ event in educational research the conference represented a valuable opportunity to present, discuss and engage. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the ‘Hands Off’ Sports Coaching symposium along with our very own Heather Piper and Bill Taylor and also Dean Garratt from Chester University. Based primarily upon an ESRC funded project undertaken by Heather, Bill and Dean entitled ‘No touch’ coaching – the politics of presumed guilt, and my attempts to position these themes within a PE teaching context, the symposium addressed the issue of intergenerational touch and its problematic associations. Contact between adult and child is routinely seen as ‘risky’ in contemporary circles, as suspicion and mistrust now dominate narratives and discourses, presupposing that adults who work with children are both capable of and likely to commit acts of abuse. The symposium confronted this within a range of contexts using a number of approaches.

Heather Piper foregrounded the discussion with a particularly illustrative piece of footage. Taken from the NSPCC initiative ‘keeping children safe in music’, the video advises music teachers on the ‘dangers’ of touching their pupils, stating that ‘touching students can make children uncomfortable’ and ‘can leave teachers open to accusations of inappropriate behaviour’. This is a salient example of the preventative culture which adults are directly encouraged to facilitate. It arguably becomes more pronounced and the implications more severe when an environment as tactile as sporting engagement is introduced. The requirement for sports coaches and PE teachers to touch has placed such practitioners in a markedly invidious position. The video is almost laughably contrived, the look of concern on the young violinist’s face (00.59) when the instructor places a hand on his shoulder gives a good indication of the extent to which fear mongering can be so manifestly exploitative.

In addition to this, Both Bill and Dean made use of Foucauldian perspectives, drawing attention to the notion of ‘gaze’ and behavioural conditioning in sports coaching. An examination of the interplay between external pressure to conform to a circumscribed archetype and increasing internalisation of such contemporarily conventional thought, helped to identify the damaging and all-consuming capability of a climate of discursive fear. Both presentations made specific reference to the Paul Hickson case, a chapter that signalled a seismic shift in the public and institutional perceptions of sports coaches. Sport was subsequently regarded by Celia Brakenridge as ‘the last bastion of child abuse’ as the pendulum swung firmly towards imperatives of child protection.

Dean called upon Foucault’s concept of Governmentality, describing the significance of self-regulation in contemporary circles and its largely automatic maintenance. When applied to intergenerational contact it becomes evident that adults are subliminally subscribing to the idea of tactile prevention in a way fully consistent with Foucault’s theory. As litigation and accusation is now such a potent threat, a mechanism is in place with the aim of regulating behaviour with simultaneous subtlety and influence. By producing ‘guidelines’ which discourage contact between teacher or coach and pupil, practitioners are far more likely to moderate their action than they would perhaps be if explicit rulings were imposed. It is the relative ease with which such manipulative techniques have emerged that represents a cause for considerable concern here.

Alongside this, Bill evoked notions of moral entrepreneurism, contending that the outrage engendered in the discussion of child abuse creates an environment in which any allusion to the victimisation of adults working with children is swiftly dismissed by the self-righteous piety of those adhering to consensus. Going ‘against the grain’ presents problems when contestation is viewed by a majority as repugnant, and it is with this that the researcher must wrestle when attempting to construct an investigation which is itself actively extricated from moralistic populism.

I attempted to situate PE teachers within this narrative of fear using, amongst other theoretical tools, Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society. Not only are conceptions of risk at the core of this climate of intergenerational fear but they are also utilised, exploited or rejected in a myriad of different ways. Risk implies that there is inherent danger within a particular environment however a great deal of the danger that resides in intergenerational contexts is a fabricated distortion based largely upon reactionary public concern. As one of the defining characteristics of Beck’s risk society is an increasing awareness of and aversion to uncertainty, a sweeping and hysterical approach to the interrogation of intergenerational contact combined with a distinct lack of knowledge about the subject of child abuse makes for a climate in which confusion and clouded judgement predominate. ‘Not knowing’ and the increasing public frustration at what is perceived to be a lack of control has proved to be remarkably unsettling here, the consequences of which have been the categorical removal of adult from child in PE and other contexts, in a bid to reclaim some semblance of publically legitimate authority.

The symposium’s audience was truly international, with representatives from Norway, Sweden, New Zealand and Preston in attendance. The Scandinavian contingent notably remarked that they had themselves witnessed significant increases in the attention paid to child protection. This was an interesting and somewhat disconcerting reminder of the transcendental reach of what can perhaps now be described as a ‘movement of fear’. In the words of Bill Taylor ‘it’s coming……..’


Simon Fletcher

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