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How schools are killing nativity plays

So it's the season of peace and goodwill to all men, when the horrors of Christmas shopping, too much booze and the prospect of the in-laws brings out the worst in us all. And for parents of primary school kids, there's a whole new battleground out there: the school nativity play.

Yes, I know it's been a bowel-clenching horror for heads and teachers for decades, as you fend off competing pleas for Violet Elizabeth or Chloe to be Mary this year, pray that the three wise men are up to remembering a line each, and brightly find a part for every child. Yes, I know you see tinsel and tea towels in your sleep from October onwards. But now the pressure seems to be getting to you in strange ways.

For a start, there's Perfection Syndrome. Maybe all educational professionals have got their own internal Ofsted inspector these days, complete with clipboard. That's the only explanation I have for the two local schools I've heard of which banned pre-schoolers from their Christmas performance this year. The little brothers and sisters were to be allowed to watch the dress rehearsal, but nothing was to sully the perfection of the real performance.

Never mind that these are the school's future customers. Never mind that many of them regularly go to school events to see their siblings' achievements, and are used to the idea that they must behave well or be removed. Never mind that this ban on pre-schoolers effectively barred many parents from the real performance - often parents who stay at home full-time just so that they can share these moments with their children.

And never mind that often the most appreciative audience for child performers are other children. They're the ones who don't notice Joseph picking his nose over the baby Jesus, but do notice the Christmas magic of it all.

Most parents are reasonable beings who loathe screaming infants as much as you do. The vast majority of us will remove screaming babies or terrible toddlers from nativity plays instantly, and we don't object to being reminded beforehand - for the benefit of the thick-skinned minority - that this what we are expected to do. But this punitive approach does nothing for the season of goodwill.

Then there's the new great catch-all, Paedophile Syndrome (part of the currently unstoppable We Know Best movement - you know, the one which always starts: "For reasons of health and safety...").

This one is being used to stop many local papers from sharing in pupils' achievements with a wider public, at a time when children are increasingly portrayed as victims or problems. Surely it's a good idea to show community charge payers without children what they're getting for their money?

It's also being used to stop us would-be Tarantinos having wobbly footage of infant nativity plays on hand to embarrass our teenagers. I'd never had the slightest wish to video a school event before, but my eight-year-old has a burning desire to see her little sister's performance as narrator in the Reception nativity.

Increasingly, schools are banning parents from videoing or photographing these landmark moments on the grounds that paedophiles could get hold of the images. Since the people recording the images are also recording their own children, it seems highly unlikely that they are wittingly or unwittingly putting other children at greater risk by doing so.

If any of these parents are actually paedophiles then their filming of innocent children playing out a timeless story of good is the least of our worries. If paedophile parents want to groom their children's classmates for sex they are already in a position of trust and only one step away from taking advantage of it. What difference could filming the nativity play make?

We're in danger of losing something very special here. Part of the joy of the primary nativity play, particularly the infant ones, is its imperfection. It's not the West End, but nobody expects it to be, and family support - including that of small siblings - is part of the atmosphere. Being able to replay it later, with more praise for the performers, can only be a good thing.

Schools may feel fed up that hours of work seem ruined by a rampaging toddler, or anxious that at some point they will be blamed in some way for an attack on a child. But there must be a better way forward than blanket bans. Perhaps honest discussion of the issues with parents would be a good start.

Susan Young is an assistant editor at The TES

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