Stranger danger hasn't destroyed trust

1st July 2005 at 01:00
I've visited more than 30 primary schools over the past six months as part of a research project. But I could have been anyone.

I spent my mornings working with a child on a series of assessment activities; often with their parent or carer looking on. The schools had been contacted well in advance and the dates set up by the project administrator. I rang both the school and the parents or carers several days beforehand to make sure it was still convenient. I also had parental consent to video their child during the session. So I was an expected visitor, carrying out a circumscribed activity.

But apart from the phone call earlier in the week, neither the school, the child nor the parent had ever had any contact with me before. I carried my institution staff card as a form of photo identity and my Criminal Records Bureau certificate. While schools asked me to sign in and out, and sometimes to wear a badge indicating my visitor status, not once was I asked for identification of any kind or for evidence of my CRB clearance.

I agree that it is unlikely that anyone would turn up at 8.30am carrying four cases, a camera and some yoga mats, unless they had a good reason to be there. However, at a time when schools have increasingly to police their entrances and exits, use entryphones video links, panic alarms and walkie talkies; when the car park is locked during the day and, most significantly, the rhetoric of children in danger is rife, the absence of an identification check seems quite surprising, even careless. Is it, though?

Thinking about my experience, there are presumably several good reasons why no one asked me to prove who I was. For instance, they could have assumed that anyone carrying out university-based funded research would have had their suitability checked by others who would, in turn, be liable if a problem were to occur.

In taking me on and in its application to the CRB, the university checked my identity, including my qualifications. The university procedures also require that research is submitted to scrutiny on ethical grounds and that any perceived risks to participants have been thoroughly addressed.

However, in the absence of checking that I was who I said I was, all this could have meant nothing.

Or perhaps the sheer number of visitors arriving in primary schools during the school day makes such checking impractical. With such a variety of people and organisations, what possible time is there for school staff to check on the identity or credentials of all their visitors? It would be a full-time job. Hence the visitors' book, which indicates at least who has come and gone, their timings and their purpose. Then again, the very number of people arriving and departing might make it easier for unwelcome visitors too.

But there is another, more positive, reason: that despite the pervasive rhetoric of risk and stranger danger, people are sensible to the nature of the real threats that face children, such as traffic or injury. Because of this, there is still trust that people are who they say they are, and that their intentions are honest. The purpose of my research - and of most other people visiting schools - is benign and is treated as such. Further, spending hours checking documents goes against the welcoming spirit that schools try to foster. So the fences and entryphones are to deter the unwelcome visitor and make those who are welcome feel secure. On reflection, therefore, rather than being alarmed, I am reassured.

Harriet Gross is a psychology lecturer at Loughborough University. The research was part of a project based at Nottingham University

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