24 July 2009

A different sort of school examination

An interesting story in the press this week about children's authors being vetted before appearing in schools (story here). Apparently the likes of Philip Pullman and Anne Fine feel "demeaned" by having to submit to the new, more extensive safeguarding checks before working in a class of children, hinting darkly it is either a revenue raising exercise or reminiscent of the notorious Clause 28 legislation in the 1980s.

A short way of summarising their arguments would be: "don't you know who I am?" Pullman seems to regard it as insulting that anyone would even think to ask someone working in a school for a background check. "You ought to be able to trust people, so to say to a child that you're having someone to talk to you but don't worry, we've checked him out and he's not a paedophile, implies that everybody who isn't checked is."

I can't quite understand why Pullman's knickers are quite so tightly twisted, but it seems to be cutting off the circulation to his brain. How is asking for a background check on someone working in a school, no matter how briefly, the same as announcing to the children that their visitor is not a rapist? Yes you ought to be able to trust people, and the sun should shine in summer and England should win the World Cup every four years. I wonder how he'd feel if he found out his local GP wasn't registered with the General Medical Council? No doubt it wouldn't be a problem, after all, you've got to be able to trust people.

And as for the comparison with Clause 28, that is a really cheap shot; clause 28 was about what children did or didn't get taught. Safeguarding is about what happens before you even get to the classroom. After the years spent trying to get authorities to take protection of children from sex offenders seriously, and the high-profile failures to protect some children, it seems either extraordinarily naive or pompous, or both. After all, why would a child sex offender try to get work in a school?

Perhaps the most revealing remark was by children's author Adele Geras, who called the scheme "lunatic". "They ought to be able to refine this legislation to make exceptions for people who see huge groups together". For a professional writer her subtext here is not that subtle: "they ought to make an exception for authors" - they are artists, after all. Just like Gary Glitter.

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