Protective paranoia

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Mosaic Law stipulated that there should be only one scapegoat which carried the sins of the people out into the wilderness. But, following the sickening murder of Damilola Taylor, press and politicians have gathered up a whole herd of scapegoats: the "me first" generation, bad Samaritans who walk on by, racist employers, young thugs, dilatory police officers and, of course, local schools.

Harriet Harman, Peckham's Labour MP, put a patent-leather boot in by claiming that her constituents want to see better discipline in the area's schools. Then the broadsheet papers jabbed their heavy brogues into the teachers' ribs by quoting from old inspection reports on Oliver Goldsmith primary - Damilola's school - and Warwick Park, the nearby secondary.

The journalists omitted some testimony that did not fit their vision - such as the inspectors' recent assessment of Warwick Park ("Systems for managing pupils' behaviour are rigorous"). And only one paper reported Mr Justice Garland's recent ruling that although a school has a duty to prevent bullying on its premises it cannot be held accountable for incidents outside its walls.

So the picture that emerged - once again - is of fekless teachers who store up problems for society by failing to challenge a weapon-carrying "yob culture".

How ironic, therefore, to hear that there is an alternative reality: that primary schools are so terrified of parental litigation and inspectors' criticism that they are even banning conkers, believing they could be used as "offensive weapons" (Research Focus, page 27).

As the study's author has said, it is important not to exaggerate the degree of paranoia. Many schools still permit the full range of playground games. Nevertheless, it is telling that three of the six schools visited had banned conkers, which the researcher, Sarah Thomson, describes as "the most natural of games".

Her sample is small, but as she covered three counties we may be witnessing a new, national trend that takes us one more step away from Enid Blyton's notion of childhood.

Other restrictions will be placed on countless children following Damilola's death. No more popping round to the corner shop for sweets. No more solitary walks through the park.

But in clutching our children ever closer to our chests we must be careful not to squeeze the life out of their childhood.

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