My current job is my first one since I left school where I haven't spent most of my time working with ‘children and/or vulnerable adults’, but I do still volunteer in youth work. Because of this, I have a folder full of official-looking pieces of paper from various authorities confirming that no, I don't have a criminal record and yes, I am deemed safe to work with children, young people and vulnerable adults.
I have, I don't know how many times, explained to volunteers why it's necessary for them to fill in the form — and a new form for every organisation — and get their ID signed off on so that someone in an office somewhere can find out if they've ever been noticed by the police and might present a danger to children. I've also explained that it depends on exactly what's on record, and a few penalty points won't be a problem.
I have accepted complaints that volunteers have felt insulted or accused, especially when their organisations have known them for years. I've apologised that even though they have a form from somewhere else, this place over here needs one, too.
I've even been heard to say that if someone isn't keen enough on the role to fill in the form, then they may not be keen enough on the role.
I've had long conversations with volunteer managers and with other staff in organisations who are worried about the impact of the new regulations and Vetting and Barring Scheme, both on their time and effort and on the recruitment of new volunteers.
I have become way too familiar with a host of acronyms and titles: PoCVA, Taking Care, Safe From Harm, Access NI, Disclosure, CRB, ISA, VBS...
And while I have had the occasional moan, I haven't complained too much. Because it's important. It's an important system, and an important precaution, to do what we can to keep people safe.
All of which is to say that I'm reasonably familiar with the issues. Onward, then, to today's news.<!--more-->
The BBC is reporting:
Several high-profile authors are to stop visiting schools in protest at new laws requiring them to be vetted to work with youngsters. Philip Pullman, author of fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, said the idea was “ludicrous and insulting”. ... The authors, including fantasy writer Mr Pullman, say they have worked in schools for years without ever being left alone with children. Mr Pullman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “It's actually rather dispiriting and sinister. “Why should I pay £64 to a government agency to give me a little certificate to say I'm not a paedophile. “Children are abused in the home, not in classes of 30 or groups of 200 in the assembly hall with teachers looking on.” Anthony Horowitz - author of the popular Alex Rider series - wrote in a comment article for the Independent: “In essence, I'm being asked to pay £64 to prove that I am not a paedophile. “After 30 years writing books, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, spreading an enthusiasm for culture and literacy, I find this incredibly insulting.” He added that the database “poisons the special relationship that exists between children and authors they admire”.
On the one hand, if you start making exceptions (because someone is a former Children's Laureate, say) in implementing this kind of system, then you make the whole thing seem a bit pointless. And if you're an author whose books I've read, does that make you any more worthy or “insulted” than the kind person, volunteer or paid, who stops in to teach some young people a bit of first aid/personal safety/circus skills/improvisational comedy (all real examples)? Poor, put-upon, you.
On the other hand, the authors raise a good point — if not necessarily the one they intend.
One of the considerations for the various vetting schemes has been whether an individual will have unsupervised contact with children, young people or vulnerable adults. In my experience this is almost never the case in a school visit, and when I have seen it happen it's been where there has been vetting and so on in place. To apply the checks in this instance does seem a little silly.
I can't think of many people who don't have “regular”, or even “intense” by these definitions, contact with children. You go to the shops and there they are. The cinema? Yes. Even walking down the street? Of course. Never mind on the bus, where you might find yourself in close quarters with young people, enclosed and for the whole length of a rush hour commute.
Yes, there's a little hyperbole there, but you see my point?
As I say above, I believe that this kind of system is an important precaution to safeguard vulnerable people. Yet I wonder if it's got a little silly? At what point do you leave sensible precaution behind and start creating an environment where everyone is afraid of everyone else?
Some of it is driven by the need of various agencies — Government, schools, caring organisations, youth organisations, local authorities — to be seen to be doing something, and much of the guidance that I have seen on working with children and young people has seemed to have more to do with protecting the adult from misperception or spurious accusation than it has to do with protecting children. Few people will admit that, though. (Of course, it does also contribute to an environment where children are less at risk.)
I can say something for the new system, though. From my reading of the ISA website linked above, some lessons seem to have been learned from the previous arrangements: the new scheme will be phased in over an extended period of time, hopefully not repeating the overloaded early days and months-long waiting lists that were our first experiences of Disclosure Scotland and of Access NI; and under the new scheme one form will cover one person for whatever they do, so my fat folder of returned checks will be only one sheet thick.
I'm trying to read charitably the phrase, “When a person becomes ISA-registered they will be continuously monitored and their status reassessed against any new information which may come to light”, but that's for another day.