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Saturday, 18 July 2009

Child Protection - "Outrageous, Demeaning and Insulting?"

Over the last week or so, debate has erupted on the issue of vetting in schools, after it became widely known that the Independent Safeguarding Authority will vet all individuals who work with children from October this year, requiring them to register with a national database for a fee of £64.

The controversy, the furore, surrounds a flotilla of prominent childrens authors who are experiencing varying degrees of personal insult and incredulity at the fact that they will have to be vetted before going into schools. Philip Pullman called the plans "outrageous, demeaning and insulting" and he cites, as a main reason, that there are no circumstances in which a visiting author would be left alone with individual children. - "How on earth – how on earth – how in the world is anybody going to rape or assault a child in those circumstances? It's preposterous."

Numerous others, including Anne Fine and Adele Geras, voiced outrage. Fine and Pullman have declared that they will no longer be visiting schools; refusing to undergo this 'demeaning' procedure. Geras calls for changes in the status of those working with large groups of children.


I can appreciate the concerns that these writers are raising - they are, in fact, the concerns probably shared with many many in our society whose professions require close contact with children. Teachers, healthcare professionals, medics, volunteers, social workers, nursery nurses, sports coaches; all undergo these procedures, such as CRB checks, which effectively are used to check that an individual is not a known paedophile. So many individuals in the public sector have to undergo this procedure, to prove one isn't a paedophile, in order to practice their professions - the people in our society who work closest to help children are seemingly the prime suspects for potential abusers.

The fact that the outcries of this offended little group, which fellow childrens author Robert Muchamore called "the usual grey-haired mafia of 'renowned' kids' authors", has received such coverage is quite telling of suspicions in the system. It can be fairly called 'preposterous and absurd' for these esteemed childrens authors working with large groups of children to be vetted. What about your average Joe primary school teacher - specifically a Joe as opposed to a Josephine? If a male primary school teacher refused to undergo vetting, thinking it unnecessary, preposterous and absurd, he will find himself not only jobless, but would certainly be the topic of many a whisper between parents and member of the local community. Sadly, not all in society are in positions where they can afford to make such bold statements - vetting is wildly more demeaning for the normal people who might be genuinely suspected if they do not comply, and whose livelihoods depend upon their 'proving' they are not a paedophile, in order to do the job they love and are trained to do.

Something we are overlooking here is the fundamental awkwardness which undergirds much of our social policy as a result of the pervasive influence that the hatemongering print media has over the political process. Ours is a society, like America, that values individual liberty almost more than anything - nothing riles up the collective conscience more than speed cameras, nanny state, CCTV, monitoring chips in bins, and so on. But at the same time as placing ultimate merit on individual liberty - The Liberty of the moderns, the liberty to be left alone - our society is equally fueled by the venom of the lynchmob mentality in dealing with punishment. In the wake of the Soham murders, the fear of paedophiles has been exacerbated - the result of this being a suspicion of those working ith children, a general mistrust of strangers, a tighter parental grip on infants wrists and higher sales figures for the print media. Herein lies the problem - people want children to be protected from paedophiles, but they themselves feel morally wounded when they must undergo checks. The stigma of paedophilia is such that even undergoing a check is perceived to be tantamount to suspicion and is, as such, an insult.

Pullman may be correct that the procedures are 'Outrageous, demeaning and insulting'. But they are outrageous, demeaning and insulting for the swathes of people employed particularly in the public sector too - these vainglorious authors merely shout louder than those bogged down by the government's other obsessions such as targets and standards. I do not in principle disagree with the anger of these authors, but they are channeling it in the most self-righteous of manners. Should not these prominent figures use their positions of authority to question the extent of vetting procedures in general, rather than what we have now - a situation in which each of them are either calling for exemptions, legislative change so that they can carry on unvetted, or else they will simply leave the country?

There was understandable public concern about schools vetting procedures post-Soham, but these fears were moulded into a folk devil for media profit and the result has been a highly suspicious society. Vetting is necessary, absolutely necessary, but it's extent ought to be questioned and considered. Current child protection policies may actually be founded upon an exaggerated fear equating to a moral panic however well-intentioned they may be.

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