It’s funny how often laws or regulations collide. Perhaps the most famous absurdity can be found in Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22: airmen couldn’t be discharged from the American army in the Second World War unless proven mad. Yet to seek discharge was the only sane thing to do in an insane conflict.
This is, of course, the law of unintended consequences. A great example is this country's shortage of doctors. Many among the refugees arriving in the UK are qualified doctors but, as refugees, they’re forbidden to work.
Another example is a regulation now hitting schools, creating what I’d describe as another unintended consequence – unintended because, if it was spotted, then it’s crazy.
Ever more stringent safeguarding requirements, recently reinforced in the latest version of Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE), make it all but impossible for schoolchildren on a language exchange to stay with host families in, say, France, Germany or Spain.
According to Annexe E of KCSIE, “such arrangements could amount to ‘private fostering’ under the Children Act 1989 or the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, or both”.
Thus, if a school makes an arrangement with, for example, its opposite number in France, so that the English children stay with French families and vice versa, they’re setting up “private fostering”. Because the school is a regulated activity provider, all adults in the host home must have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.
In the heyday of language exchanges, schools might have sent 50 or more children to France or Germany. Calculate the DBS checks required for the return visit, estimating two adults over 18 in every house (not necessarily parents): 100-plus. I guess they’d be free, being for volunteers, but the cost in office time of that paper-chase is colossal – as well as dragging parents in for their identity checks and the like.
Even if we can navigate that bureaucratic labyrinth, what about the parent who feels that such a check is intrusive or just plain wrong? If they stand on principle and refuse to be checked, they cannot host a child from the exchange school.
This regulation is surely the death knell for such activities as language exchanges. Even with all parents in both schools willing to be checked, sheer administrative workload makes the task impracticable in a busy school.
Those who devise the complex and demanding safeguarding regulations under which we operate will insist that, if they save just one child from being abused, they are worth all the pain. That’s fine in principle but it has left the path of pragmatic reality, of what is workable.
Our society’s lack of trust is now so great that the regulations we create will kill off another strand of our struggling modern language learning. Post-Brexit vote, maybe that matters less, though I doubt many in education (children or staff) voted to leave.
I still believe in the legal concept of “reasonableness”. I’m sure we could have devised a degree of checking that maintained a reasonable level of assurance and still allowed language exchanges and sports tours to go ahead.
In some places they still will. But children will stay in hostels and hotels, lessening the vital cultural interaction of living in people’s homes and adding so much to the cost that such trips will become unaffordable to many schools and families.
Over-anxiety has, in the famous words of Basil Fawlty, “closed off another avenue of pleasure” – a valuable path of learning, too.
Our children will be the poorer for it.
Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne and a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford
To read more columns, view his back catalogue.