Thursday, July 16, 2009

The end of the school visit? Hardly.

Today there has been a lot of discussion in the papers about authors declaring that they will boycott school visits if new regulations are brought in. You can read it about it in The Times, The Guardian and The Independent. What the authors, who include the likes of Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz, say, is that the new Vetting and Barring Scheme will require them to pay £64 to register themselves on a database and undergo a check that they are not a danger to children, should they want to do any school visit. This is, apparently, demeaning, and why should authors have to prove that they are not paedophiles?

There's a lot of hyperbolic outrage here. One is tempted to suggest that some people should get over themselves. What, after all, is more important - protecting an author from being affronted that somebody might want to check that they are not a danger to children before allowing them to work closely with them, or protecting children from people who might be a threat? Pullman mentions authors who depend on the income from school visits, who would now lose that money - but if the income is that important, I'd expect them to stump up the £64. Anthony Browne's views seem rather less hysterical.

However, there are implications here, not just for writers, but for people like me. Last October I gave a talk to my niece's primary school about Romans. In November I gave a talk in a school in Oxford. I was scheduled to do another schools conference in May (though that fell through), and have an invitation to go to another school sometime in the autumn. At no point did anyone mention that I might need a Criminal Records Bureau check before doing that. Today's stories would suggest that this is no longer the case, which has implications not just for me, but for any university doing Outreach activities in schools.

The thing is, the story's broadly not true. Because I'm the sort of person who likes to back his opinions up with evidence, I went on to the website of the Independent Safeguard Authority. Several pages have interesting things to say. This page, for instance, says "In England and Wales, the requirement to refer and criteria for referrals remain the same from 20 January 2009. From 13 March 2009, the requirement to refer and the criteria for referral are unchanged in Northern Ireland." To me, that implies that no-one who didn't need registering before will need registering now. This page talks about what constitutes regulated or controlled activity, and talks a lot about frequent or intensive activity. I wouldn't immediately interpret that as applying to a single visit into a school supervised by a teacher.

Finally, the BBC story carries an official refutation of the authors' position. It's a bit buried, and the story gives more weight to the authors' point of view. But the Department of Children, Schools and Families say that the regulations have been misinterpreted. They only apply to someone who goes into schools more than once a month (the official definition of 'frequent'). Moreover, they say, "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. We therefore need to be sure that this trust is well placed in case pupils bump into them out of school where a teacher is not present." From which I infer that the intention of the regulations is that only people who go more than once a month into the same school need register. That, to me, would eliminate most authors from needing to register, and it certainly means I don't need to worry. Some Outreach programmes may have to be careful, but even then, it is also the case that if someone isn't being paid for the visit, then, whilst they need to be registered, they don't have to pay for it.

So in the end, this story appears to be a bunch of authors getting the wrong end of the stick and then getting rather overly upset about it, exacerbated by journalism that could have been rather more through. None of the newspaper sites mention what is on the ISA's website. Instead, they chose to print what the authors said without question. Because that makes a better story ...

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