Safeguarding is a monster beyond our control

27th November 2009 at 00:00

In his new book, What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell teaches us a new concept: "risk homeostasis". It is, he concedes, somewhat controversial, because, like so much of Gladwell's work, it goes against what common sense would tell us. Risk, he tells us, won't ever go away.

He cites the Challenger disaster, which in 1986 left America traumatised. Carrying the first civilian passenger, Christa McAuliffe, it was a mission that exemplified the self-confidence of the US space program. And given that McAuliffe was a teacher, the eyes of American children, and children around the world, followed that fateful 73-second lift-off. Then, as a result of a barely perceptible leak in the O-ring of its booster rocket, the spacecraft exploded.

That night, due to make the annual State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan painted an emotional picture of the heroic crew, saying how they had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God".

The US government set up a painstaking investigation into what went wrong and what lessons could be learnt, just as they had after the Three Mile Island crisis of 1976. Unnervingly, Gladwell points out that such investigations are "exercises in self-deception". They exist to convince us that lessons will be learnt. But in reality, accidents are normal. They happen.

As Gladwell puts it: "At some point in the future, a Nasa spacecraft will go down in flames. We should at least admit this to ourselves now. And if we cannot, then our only option is to start thinking about getting rid of things like space shuttles altogether."

What if we applied this concept to "safeguarding"? Safeguarding is what we used to call child protection. It's something that has always been at the heart of the teaching profession's responsibilities. The trouble is that now it feels that it has become a monster beyond our control, and given the subject matter, something that few in education feel they can challenge. Criticising safeguarding feels tantamount to excusing child abuse. Yet might our safeguarding obsession be another "exercise in self-deception"?

Take some of the absurdities of the culture defined by the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). It is fair enough that all who work in schools and will come into regular contact with children should undergo criminal records checks - teachers, instructors, caretakers and so on. But anyone who sets foot in a school? The authors Anthony Horowitz and Philip Pullman have already announced that they will no longer give talks in schools because they object to the underlying assumption that they may be unsafe around children.

The other week, we took a group of students to a netball tournament. Rather than be accompanied by a second teacher to supervise them, what if the former head girl went along as referee? Inevitably and depressingly, the question was posed: had she undergone a criminal-records check?

It gets worse. Like many schools, we employ some students of sixth-form age as cleaners. It means we have a ready-made workforce who take pride in the school and are paid a decent amount for two hours' cleaning each night. But since they are working as employees of the school and may come into contact with younger pupils, they also need to undergo criminal vetting, even though by day they are members of the student community.

What next? As students begin to study diplomas, there is an expectation that some may travel by bus to other schools and colleges for part of their applied learning. This means - gasp - that they will be on public transport mixing with people who have not been vetted. Should we start expecting bus drivers and pensioners to wear lapel badges declaring their innocence?

Sir Roger Singleton, head of the ISA, has already said that firms that deal with schools will probably want to have all their employees vetted so they will be more likely to get contracts. In the old days, a builder's headed paper might carry an Investors in People crest. Next it will be a safeguarding logo.

All of this wouldn't matter if the stakes weren't so high. But because safeguarding has been made a "limiting judgment" in the new Ofsted regime, a school on track to be judged outstanding could topple into a lower Ofsted category if there is an omission in its central record of staff.

Inspectors have recently been told to give schools a breathing space to put such issues right (most are likely to be administrative errors), but that punitive, finger-wagging starting point is astonishing and bleak.

In this grim Alice-in-Wonderland world, the risk is that we deter adult volunteers from ever giving talks, or becoming governors, or helping at school events. And the bigger risk - the one Malcolm Gladwell talks about - is that in making the notion of safeguarding so pervasive, so obsessive, we do more than inject mistrust into relationships between adults and children. We also risk "an exercise in self-deception", deluding ourselves that risk has been eliminated, managed, and our schools made safe from threat.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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