Please preserve parental power

29th October 2010 at 01:00

The parents of seven-year-old Isabelle McCullough recently received a letter from Lincolnshire County Council, warning them that they could be reported to social services for letting their daughter walk to the school bus stop alone. This incident follows a similar one a few months ago, when Oliver and Gillian Schonrock of south London were challenged by their children's school for allowing their five and eight-year-olds to walk or cycle to school alone.

These two stories have made the national news and, in both cases, the schools and councils have been condemned for their over-reaction. Yet it remains the case that the parents in these cases had to justify their actions to officials before the threat of further "child safety" action was removed.

As a Lincolnshire spokesperson explained with regard to the McCullough case: "Safeguarding is the responsibility of everyone and, where we become aware of anything that compromises the safety of a vulnerable child or adult, we will take steps to address it."

The above cases may seem rare, but the mantra of "safeguarding children" is at the heart of the previous government's Every Child Matters green paper, which made safeguarding children "the responsibility of everyone", especially those professionals dealing with children. This is a development that is now being replicated in Scotland.

At one level, of course, keeping children safe should be everyone's concern - and arguably it always has been. However, there is now a significant shift in the role of professionals and local authorities towards undermining parental authority and parental autonomy. In essence, parents now have to justify any decision they make that can be deemed as placing their child at risk.

Tragically, since children are now categorised as vulnerable due to their age and relative inexperience, that pretty much means any decision to allow children to do anything without an accompanying adult can be labelled as putting them at risk.

Look further into the avalanche of child safety legislation over the past decade and you find, more specifically, that any children living in a household that earns less than half the average income are labelled as vulnerable children. That's four million children in England and Wales.

So not only are children in general being defined as vulnerable and potentially at risk, but children from less well-off backgrounds or poor families are being seen as needing added attention due to their particular vulnerability.

This would be fine if it meant more and better schooling, play facilities or even benefits for these children. But, in essence, with the vulnerable label being attached, the safeguarding mantra being pursued and what appears to be an ever-decreasing trust in parents to make decisions for their children, this amounts to the colonisation of the family by professionals and authorities.

Next time you look out of your window and see not a single child playing in the street, perhaps you could contact your local MSP or MP and ask why neither they nor their colleagues opposed the safeguarding legislation that is increasingly blighting the lives of children and undermining the authority of parents.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology lecturer at the University of Abertay, Dundee.

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