‘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

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