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Never mind budgets, parents rail against risk

Budget cuts may be the overwhelming issue of the moment for schools, but they barely got a mention at the annual conference of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

Instead, members used the forum to rail against what they saw as a risk- averse society that prevented children from walking to school or going swimming.

The charge was led by Abertay University sociology and criminology lecturer Stuart Waiton, who put the blame squarely on local authorities. In the past, he said, people had visions for their communities; now risk- management was the prime concern. "We have a society that tries to limit harm rather than create good," he complained.

His comments were echoed by Alistair Seaman, programme manager for Grounds for Learning, a charity that aims to help children learn in the outdoors.

Risk assessment ensured a disproportionate focus on what could go wrong in an activity, he said, reducing the time spent planning for the likely scenario that things go well.

Donald MacKenzie, who has a child-protection remit at Dundee City Council, admitted that legislation and regulation were "extremely blunt instruments", but said emerging issues such as child-trafficking made them increasingly important.

That was an argument dismissed out of hand by Dr Waiton, who described child-trafficking in the UK as a "modern myth". It was symptomatic of a modern trend for authorities to create a spurious fear, as a pretext for regulation and legislation that restricted freedoms.

But Sandra Martin, Fife Council parent and pupil partnership development officer, was concerned that Dr Waiton and others at the conference, titled "Child protection - getting the balance right", were guilty of "scaremongering of a different sort".

She accepted that authorities could on occasion be excessively risk- averse, but argued that the problem was not as drastic as had been depicted. "A lot of kids are walking long distances to school and going to pools on their own," she said.

During the main presentations, the economic crisis facing local authorities was raised only once.

Caroline Stewart, of the Central Registered Body in Scotland, had been explaining how staff and volunteers in children's services would be affected by changes to the national disclosure system.

That prompted Helen Connor, a former president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, to warn that in the current climate, the higher costs would either be passed on to staff or lead to job cuts - in future authorities will have to pay a pound;59 fee for staff working with children, rather than the current pound;23.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the SPTC, said the decision to build the event around child-protection issues was taken because the new national Protecting Vulnerable Groups Scheme had been due to start on November 30.

Three days before the conference, it emerged that IT problems would delay the scheme until February.

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