End the fear over children

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Scots children have never been safer and anxieties about child protection merely create a climate of fear, a parent leader last week told 200 graduating students at Moray House School of Education.

Judith Gillespie, development manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, won strong support among aspiring teachers for her outspoken attack on the battery of child protection measures that are stifling voluntary and paid work with children.

"The biggest risk to children in this country is from road traffic accidents and from speed and far less is done about that," Mrs Gillespie said. Child protection measures had grown out of proportion to the risk and it would not be long before parents coming to watch a nativity play had to be vetted.

"Children who are at risk are at most risk from members of their own family and we have to put this thing back into perspective. Many high-profile cases would not have been picked up by police checks. The whole balance is spiralling out of control and people are being checked three, four or five times as a paid or voluntary employee," Mrs Gillespie said.

There was a mistaken belief that checks would show whether a person was suitable yet they uncovered nothing about character or propensity to offend.

Mrs Gillespie appealed for society to establish a proportionate response to risk. She was, for example, constantly harangued about threats to children from mobile phones and the latest technology. "If parents say they are worried about the threat from the third generation mobile phones they have the solution in their hands. They do not buy them," she said.

She was responding during a Question Time session at the end of a week-long conference for students from the four-year primary undergraduate course and from physical education and design and technology courses.

Commenting on parent involvement, she suggested schools had to meet parents on their terms, often socially, before they could work together and understand each other. Parents did not like being hauled in to school to be told their child was failing and naturally reacted against that.

All parents were really "quite interested" in their children. But teachers had to appreciate that there were many things going on in their lives and progress at school may not be uppermost. Many, including herself, were fed up supervising the same homework and sometimes she favoured the Blue Peter model: "Here's one your older brother did earlier."

Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, told students he had yet to be convinced about the "learning gap" between upper primary and the first two years of secondary. As far back as 1917, there were similar concerns about a time in young people's lives when hormones and puberty come into play.

Scottish pupils in terms of league tables did not do particularly well at that age but when they reach their late teenage years and enter university they perform near the top of the international tables.

Professor Paterson suggested that young people's lack of focus between the ages of 11 and 14 may work in their longer term interests since they were learning a whole range of other things.

He further rejected any suggestions that teachers had not been treated well by recent governments. "Government and local government have done more for the teaching profession than they have done for any other single profession. If it's not perfect, it's not the fault of government. This week's pay deal indicates that this is the case," he told students concerned about job prospects.

Professor Paterson turned the question around in the fashion of former US President John F Kennedy. "What can the profession do over the next few years to make sure the intentions of the McCrone deal are fulfilled?" he asked.

Compared with entry to other professions, teachers were not doing badly.

"There is a need for new teachers every year up until 2013," he said.

Maggi Allan, education director in South Lanarkshire, said teacher planning remained extremely complex and authorities had to recruit on a "staggered basis". Mrs Allan said: "Forty-two per cent of probationers getting permanent posts is considerably higher than several years ago and availability of supply posts is also greater."

Leader 20

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