Something's bugging me about our moral code

30th January 2009 at 00:00

At the start of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, the hero Gregor Samsa wakes up to find that he has turned overnight into a repulsive insect. These days, he might reflect that it could be worse; he could be caught instead in the labyrinthine madness of school safeguarding regulations.

It was Terry Waite, I think, who commented that nowadays all the adults behave like children while the children behave like adults. As a result, we seem to demonise every adult as a potential paedophile and indulge every child as a proto-adult with the same rights (but not responsibilities) as someone twice their age. It's as if we've lost our moral compass about the acceptable line to draw between childhood and the adult arena.

Thus we accept that each weekend our town centres will be transformed into battlegrounds where underage drinkers stagger and spew their way home. It's hard to imagine many other European cultures deeming this normal. We watch tweenagers totter off into the British winter dressed like Paris Hilton. And in the physically safe confines of their bedrooms, we let our children slip away into unpoliced cyber-worlds in which who knows who may be lurking.

We mistrust the adults and indulge the children.

Of course, our obsession with safeguarding can be justified by the bad things that sometimes do happen. There was the Baby P case in Haringey before Christmas, with its echoes of the Victoria Climbie tragedy in 2000. And, in 2001, there was the ease with which caretaker Ian Huntley managed to pick up a job in a school, which has cast a long shadow over all of us who recruit staff.

So, since January 2007, every school has been required to maintain a "single central record" of staff with access to pupils. We now no longer accept open references; we ask more probing questions at interview; we don't appoint without personal confirmation from the last employer; and we scrutinise the gaps in every CV. I watch candidates squirm with bafflement as I ask them whether there are aspects of their private life that, if they became public, could embarrass or discredit the school.

The single central list required by each school includes teachers, support staff, supply staff, volunteers, governors who work as volunteers, and all the other adults who may work in schools. In a specialist sports college such as ours, we routinely work with 15 to 20 coaches and volunteers, but - once you include the volunteering and mentoring done by older students - the number requiring safeguarding training or checks rises to around 300.

Each person is expected to provide evidence of their identity, their qualifications, their address, their proof of having been checked for criminal activity - all of which is understandable, sensible, quite right, except that at the same time there's something else going on. Our energy goes into ever more tightly policing the adults. But, in truth, more young people are likely to be harmed by our systemic neglect - our indulgence of binge drinking, our failure to set clear boundaries, our apparent abandonment of the notion of family life - than by the rare horrors that make the headlines.

In a week when the Government's chief medical officer bluntly told parents to stop giving alcohol to children under 15, perhaps it's time to look at the boundaries between adult life and childhood.

Take as a trivial example the return to the airwaves last weekend of BBC presenter Jonathan Ross. Back in 2005, Ross was proclaimed Dad of the Year. In his Saturday morning Radio 2 show, he frequently regales us with stories of family life. But on Friday nights on his TV chat show a kind of Mr Hyde emerges. This family man transforms into a lecherous and often foul-mouthed other self.

Only last week, the BBC Trust ruled that his comment to actress Gwyneth Paltrow that he would "f**k her" was branded "gratuitous and not editorially justified". It's as if we've forgotten the ground rules of a civilised society, forgotten that maybe a 48-year-old married TV presenter can entertain female guests on his show without having to regress to the unseemly shock tactics of an on-the-pull 17-year-old.

So, in schools, it might just be that - rather than treating every governor, every supply teacher, every community volunteer as a would-be threat - we'd be better off teaching youngsters how to resist transforming themselves into mini-Lolitas on social networking sites, and helping parents to reclaim their role as parents.

At the risk of being sneered at as do-gooding killjoys, we should reclaim some semblance of the moral high ground and make it clear that - whatever the lures of a society built on instant gratification - there should be a set of rules, responsibilities, values and expectations. And everyone - whatever their age or celebrity status - should be expected to conform to them. Then the adults could behave like adults and the children could reclaim that distant fading world that we used to know as childhood.

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

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