Hidden in a rural jungle
The nastiness of the urban jungle seems light years away. Out in the Somerset countryside, the hills are rolling, the trees are swaying and the farmers are creating monumental tailbacks as their tractors inch their way down country roads. This is rural Britain at its best: peaceful, bucolic, straight out of a holiday cottage brochure, untouched by the social problems plaguing Britain. Provence with scrumpy.
Except that it is an illusion. Beneath the reddening ivy, past the cows thoughtfully chewing over their fate are all the scourges of modern life more commonly associated with London, Birmingham or Glasgow. Look beyond the surface and you'll find long-term unemployment, poverty, drug abuse, domestic and child abuse. It's just that out here, the closed doors behind which these facts of life are played out are further apart.
When Diane Locke goes into primary schools to involve children in fundraising for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's Cry for Children campaign, she knows that her entertaining talk on child abuse will be of more than passing interest to some in her audiences.
"All human experience is in this school," said a primary head being visited by Diane. "I've asked her to come to the school to raise my children's awareness of others' problems and as an opportunity to let children know about the support available." In this very ordinary school in this part of the country, there are two children who have been physically abused.
But Diane Locke does not blitz her way through Somerset primaries to carry out social work or elicit secrets from children. As schools co-ordinator for the NSPCC in Somerset, she is primarily concerned with spreading the word about the NSPCC's work and helping children understand something about cruelty, the different gradations of it, and how to know it when they see it.
Her delivery is respectful, informative and playful all at once. With tiny volunteers from the audience of infants, she illustrates the difference between deliberate nastiness, including bullying, and accidents which cause hurt. "Imagine," she tells the boys and girls sitting in their neat rows in the school hall, "that I've pushed this boy," as she gently pushes him, "ignored this girl," as she sticks her nose in the air, "said to this boy 'you're never going to have friends at this school!' " she intones in a stinging sing-song that would sink the stomach of the toughest-skinned.
From that tour de force of children behaving badly, she gets a little boy - voluntarily - to play Cinderella to her two "yucky, horrid, terrible" sisters. It's fun and funny but when Diane wraps the story up with "and they lived happily ever after", she immediately points out that there are real children who feel like Cinderella "because people aren't nice to them".
Simplistic? Of course, but these are infants. Unlike the fairy godmother, she tells the rapt crowd, the NSPCC doesn't have magic wands to help children. This is where the fundraising plug comes in. Four cartoon characters which adorn the Cry for Children fundraising materials, including games, badges, posters and stickers, ensure that raising money is a child-friendly exercise. And child-safe. Children are warned to get sponsorship only from people they know.
In the special juniors assembly, things are a bit more sophisticated. There are more contributions from the children and a truly funny rendition of "Not Now, Bernard" that ends with children offering their heartfelt sympathy with the little boy for whom no one has time.
Fundraising is a serious activity at the NSPCC. Contributions go to a range of NSPCC services, 80 per cent of which are funded through fundraising. Nationally, schools alone raise Pounds 2 million a year. Of the 56,000 calls made to the NSPCC Children's Helpline last year, 8,000 came from Avon and Somerset. Interestingly, not all the calls are about child protection. According to Diane Locke, "We get teachers and heads ringing up for guidance and advice on whether they should take action in a difficult situation. They're not always clear about issues of neglect, to take one example. They don't know what action to take when a child comes in dirty every day. Despite the guidelines that exist, there are a lot of grey areas. Teachers know that after that first phone call to social services, it's all out of their hands. And that worries them."
To help remedy some of that haziness, NSPCC Somerset runs occasional courses for school staff on child protection, with guidance on how to identify it and what to do. The charity also runs family care centres and a young homeless project in association with Barnardo's. The NSPCC has four full-time child protection officers and one part-timer to whom social services refer families and children.
One of its most recent initiatives is a school-based counselling service. Two NSPCC counsellors, one male and one female, see children by appointment a half a day a week each. Since they were first introduced into the secondary school in west Somerset at the beginning of term, the counsellors have been fully booked by young people with problems ranging from domestic violence to bullying, to sexual pressures from boyfriends. The service, set up in partnership with the Rural Development Commission, is the only such one in the area. Chris Curran, project co-ordinator of NSPCC Somerset, says: "Somerset is a large rural county with a dispersed population. The disadvantages for children are isolation, lack of access to services and limited social contact out of school." Similar school-based counselling projects are run in three other areas.
Nationally, the picture changes from one region and community to the next. But there does appear to be a need for children to have someone to turn to when they face difficulties. The fact that so many thousands resort to telephone helplines and that the school-based counsellors are proving so popular probably says as much about school pastoral services, or the lack of them, as about the climate and pressures that lead to child abuse.
The NSPCC Child Protection Helpline number is 0800 800 500. For more information about the Cry for Children schools appeal and publications for parents and children, write to the NSPCC, 42 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3NH.