You need the right touch to teach

29th October 2010 at 01:00

A close friend has just celebrated his 80th birthday. I've known him since I was nine - he was my scoutmaster and a teacher, and his great love of education made me want to teach, too. His thirst for knowledge, his passion for music, books, film, theatre - and his wonderful humour - make evenings in his company one of life's great pleasures.

He became a highly successful headteacher, and on retirement at 65 looked for part-time work. He found it, teaching music and drama in an infant school, and at 74 became Classic FM's Music Teacher Of The Year. Even now, fully retired, he and his wife tutor a constant stream of youngsters. "Children," he said the other evening, "always keep you young."

And then he added something devastating: "The park near us is beautiful and I often feel like sitting on a bench in the sunshine with a book. Trouble is, children would probably be suspicious of an old bloke on a bench."

For someone who has spent his entire life inspiring young people, it's a sad indictment of the state of affairs we have reached. I know exactly what he means, though. Children pour through my door every day, to show me work or read to me, but I try to hear children read in pairs. This isn't always possible, and if a child stands beside me to read I am constantly aware of the danger, however slight, because the media has conditioned me to be that way.

Sadly, like all leaders today, I have to warn everybody in my building not to be alone with a child, and on the rare occasions one of them has an accident and needs to go to hospital I always send at least two adults.

Directives of varying degrees of lunacy have been issued to schools. Nursery children who are upset should never sit on an adult's knee for comforting. Children should never be touched, just issued with simple, straightforward directions. They should certainly never be subjected to a cuddle. The people issuing this advice undoubtedly feel they're ensuring our actions won't be open to misinterpretation, but anyone who knows anything about children knows this is simply wrong. Children thrive on affection and warmth, and a good measure of it needs to be tactile.

When I was growing up, I experienced a freedom that city children no longer have. I could visit the woods with my mates, spend hours in the local recreation area, even play in the road or go to the pictures on my own. Naturally, I was warned about the "Man in the Mac" who might come and sit beside me in the one-and-nines, but these days the media encourages us to see paedophiles around every corner.

In panic, we barricade our schools so that visitors feel they're attempting to enter Fort Knox. When they do get in, they have to wear labels stating who they are and why they're here. People have to sign in and out. And anyone who has the slightest contact with our children needs a CRB check, at 50 quid a time from the school budget. It has been taken to such ridiculous lengths that two policewomen weren't allowed to mind each other's children recently.

Are children in greater danger than I was as a child? Will all this prevent another Soham, or Maria Colwell, or Baby P? Frankly, I'm far from convinced. Meantime, when Anne tells me she's just passed Grade 5 violin with distinction, I'm still going to say, "Wonderful!" and give her a hug.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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