Friday, July 17, 2009

The worst case scenario

Never once when I was at school did I hear of a well-known children's author visiting a school to read some of his/her works. But, in the UK, this is a fairly common occurrence. There are even websites which make it possible for a school to find an author willing to do this.

Of course, the author gains exposure to his target audience, but he also gets to share some of his passion for literature, for stories, for the wonder of words with a new generation of children.

The children get to hear a new story, they get to meet a famous author.

You would have thought that it was a win-win situation.

But a group of Britain's best known children's authors have called a halt to these visits because of the introduction of a new vetting process designed to protect the children from would-be predators. Under the new scheme, people who want to work with children will have register on a national database at a cost of £64.

Yesterday morning, I heard Philip Pullman, who is one of the authors taking this stance, talking about their decision on the radio. He called it "dispiriting." As he points out "Children are abused in the home, not in classes of 30 or groups of 200 in the assembly hall with teachers looking on." I believe he has a point.

Anthony Horowitz is similarly put out, "After 30 years writing books, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, spreading an enthusiasm for culture and literary, I find this incredibly insulting."

A DCSF spokesman explains "This is because visitors to schools, even if they are supervised by a teacher at all times, are being placed in a unique position of trust where they can easily become deeply liked and trusted by pupils."

What worries me is that we are teaching children and society at large to view with suspicion the relationship between an adult and a child, to view every child as a potential victim and every adult as a potential predator. Some schools have even banned parents from the schools' sports day and swimming galas for fear that one or two or 20 of the parents might have nefarious intentions.

I would have thought that the relationship between children and adults in society was under enough strain. Of course, it is nothing short of tragic when a child is abused by an adult. But is legislation like this not teaching children that is the norm? Are we not creating the impression that the State is there to protect the dear little children from the nasty, wicked grown ups?

I once knew a paedophile. I boarded in his house for my first 6 months at college. Fortunately for me, I was far too old for his tastes. But I can say that the girl who was the object of his twisted attentions at the time was the daughter of close friends of his. These were people who trusted him and were delighted that he was prepared to contribute to her upbringing so generously.

I deeply regret that I never had the courage to tell the child's parents what was going on under their very noses. Not that I think they would have believed me for a moment, of course.

I'm uncomfortable with the thought that we are placing every adult under suspicion with the measures we introduce. I predict that, rather than protecting our children, it will further polarise and fracture our society, thereby affording the deviant greater latitude in which to forge a relationship of trust with a child whose life is devoid of healthy relationships with an extended circle of adults.

But I pray that I'm wrong.

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