Cut traffic, vet parents and save lives

When I was a child, my mother would disconnect the television set from its outside aerial at the first rumble of distant thunder. I would point out that she should also remove all rugs and carpets in the house (this was before the days of fitted carpets) since far more people were killed or seriously injured by tripping over these hazards than were ever struck down by lightning.

This exchange went on for many years until, one day, our aerial was indeed hit by lightning, setting off brief sparks from the disconnected lead. Then I shut up, and thereafter allowed my mother to pull plugs out in peace.

So perhaps I should shut up now, and refrain from comment on the logjam in vetting staff that caused thousands of children to miss the start of term. Yes, the Soham murders were dreadful and we should try to prevent anything like them happening again. Yes, we should protect children from potential abusers. Yes, people who are sexually attracted to children tend to seek jobs where they come into regular contact with them.

But we are talking here about relative risks and opportunity costs. These sound like technical terms - and the insurance industry makes a fortune from people's ignorance of them - but they can be boiled down to a simple rule: the costs of minimising a risk should bear some proportion to the likelihood of it coming to pass and to the effects if it does.

Moreover, in the course of reducing one risk, one should not increase another and worse risk. Thus, my mother was right and I wrong about the disconnected television aerial. The risk was negligible, but the cost of pulling the plug out was nil, unless you count my disappointment at missing my favourite programme. On the roads, by contrast, the risks are significant but the costs of making them absolutely safe are prohibitively high. Transport experts actually put a monetary value on a human life when evaluating a proposed road safety scheme. Many people think this shocking, but if officialdom didn't make some such calculation, we would have pelican crossings every few yards.

Now, consider the risks in schools and the costs of vetting. The risks of children being murdered by school staff are infinitesimal: there is, as yet, no conclusive proof that it happened even in Soham. The risks of sexual abuse are greater, but the abuser usually takes months to prepare the ground.

The risks of children, while outside school, being killed or injured in traffic accidents, battered by exasperated parents or groped by neighbours or relatives on whom they are carelessly parked are significantly higher. In other words, schools that sent children home were actually increasing the risks to them. We must be thankful that the Government recognised this and eventually agreed that new staff could start work unchecked.

But I find it alarming that ministers and officials could not recognise this simple point from the beginning. I find it only slightly less alarming that officialdom seems to have no idea where to stop on this matter of vetting. Bus drivers, governors, even mother helpers must all, it seems, be checked out.

Really? I suppose that one cannot be too careful, but I have no figures for the numbers of bus drivers or governors who have abused or murdered children in the course of their duties. I suspect nobody else has any either. Most child abuse and child murder takes place within families. Should we be vetting parents, grandparents and uncles, and terminating pregnancies if they fail the checks? Absolute safety is impossible but, if we wanted to save large numbers of children's lives and prevent lifelong trauma and injury, we would cut speed limits and enforce them.

But this term's panic was not about protecting children from risk of death, abuse or injury. It was about protecting adults - from ministers to headteachers - from any risk of blame.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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