No-touching rule is callous

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Public reaction to media revelations that some sexual offenders have been allowed to teach or work in schools has shown how highly emotive sexuality is.

But this discomfort, embarrassment and fear means school rules about touching have blocked the way in which we can work with disruptive or disaffected children. The rules may protect staff, but they ignore many children's needs and detrimentally affect their relationships with teachers and support staff. The number of paedophiles in this country - despite one newspaper's figure of at least 150 in our schools - is statistically tiny, and yet staff in schools are prevented from touching children when they are upset, distressed or physically hurt. Scottish adults have even been told not to put crying three-year-olds on their knees. What prompts such measures? Whatever happened to the knowledge that you can say more with touch than with a thousand words?

Children certainly do need to be protected from preying adults, but they also need warmth and touch. Many teachers ignore the no-touching rule because they care for their children. And how many male parents and grandparents do you know who are now anxious about cuddling, playing physical contact games, bathing their children or taking a lost child by the hand in case they are seen as a paedophile?

There may be some staff who are physically attracted to students, and students who consider themselves "in love" with a staff member. This is all part of their adolescent fantasies and awareness of their body changes and sexual urges. It is OK to feel sexual, but it is not OK to offend others with your needs. If you have to deal with sexual issues, from students or staff, make sure all disclosures are treated in confidence - except if it is a child revealing sexual abuse. This must be reported to your school's designated child protection officer.

Listen with empathy to their worries about the sexual behaviour that is causing concern and try to remember that sexuality is a basic drive. You should also watch your language so you don't cause offence. Then there's the obvious: your school should have a policy that covers relationships in school. And keep a record of complaints about sexual issues.

My research over seven years into sexuality at work, which included more than 400 educationists, highlighted how few education managers could handle issues of sexuality. The most likely response is to turn a blind eye.

Sexuality is private, passionate and pleasing. Unfortunately it can also be perverted, persuasive and political.

Jeanie Civil is a psychologist, teacher, psychotherapist, psychometric tester and author

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