Talkback: you speak, we listen

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Beware: this may raise your blood pressure

How long will it be, do you suppose, before a child is injured in a car accident and the family sues a school for not offering driving lessons; or an obese person is compensated because teachers failed to point out that being overweight is dangerous to health?

Now everyone knows their rights and schools are given all of the responsibilities, we are on a dangerous path. As we teach children about sex, drugs and the dangers of smoking, we must be prepared to shoulder the blame for sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, failed relationships, drug misuse and lung cancer. If children are bullied or misbehave, it is the school's fault; if they fail to get a job interview, it will be because teachers didn't help them with their CV. If they refuse free fruit at playtime, will they be able to blame the school for future vitamin deficiency, or if they do eat the fruit, for future pesticide poisoning?

Soon children's sole responsibility will be to turn up at school (only recently has attendance been considered their responsibility, rather than the school's) then the teachers will turn them into fully fledged adults, mollycoddling them through their coursework and taking responsibility for virtually every aspect of their lives.

Schools are expected to be the last bastions of the ironically named "family" values: not just preaching but enforcing the virtues of exercise, health, nutrition, safe sex and good relationships. Schools must swim against the tide of modern living, countering all the messages of the media and advertising; lone voices crying the virtues of restraint, abstinence and healthy lifestyles in a wilderness of vending machines, sloth, openly lewd behaviour and family breakdown.

We seem to have forgotten that these children have - or must once have had - parents, carers or other "responsible" adults. We seem also to have forgotten that the purpose of schools is to help parents in their duties by providing education. As schools take on more and more of the burden of parenting, parents and carers are increasingly disempowered and increasingly disinclined to shoulder their responsibilities. Parenting skills are being eroded and, where children turn out to be less than perfect, it will not be their own or their families' fault. They will be able to sue the school.

Already, thanks to the aggressive marketing of no-win, no-fee solicitors, we have lost the meaning of the word "accident" and are all being exhorted to sue for the slightest injury. If our little toe is damaged on a slightly raised pavement because we are wearing unsuitable shoes and not looking where we are going, it must be someone's fault. Following the same logic, if we, of our own free will, buy burgers and they scald us because they are too hot, or increase our girth because they are full of animal fat, we could not have been expected to know that. We have become so stupid and unaware of dangers that we need large warnings on cigarette packets to tell us smoking will harm us. How long before car steering wheels carry stickers warning us that failure to steer the car properly may result in an accident, or zoos have notices saying that tickling the lions may result in injury? Actually no, that would be the school's fault for not teaching animal awareness.

It is time we put the onus back on families and individuals to think for themselves and to take responsibility for all aspects of their lives.

Public information campaigns on diet, healthy living, road safety, exercise and sexual health are worthwhile and important. Helping to spread these messages is a good role for schools. Ensuring compliance is not.

Cathy Byrne is head of the Parks primary school in Hull

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