Authors boycott schools over sex-offence register

By Chris Green
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:18

A group of respected British children's authors and illustrators will stop visiting schools from the start of the next academic year, in protest at a new government scheme that requires them to register on a database in case they pose a danger to children.

Philip Pullman, Anne Fine, Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake all told The Independent that they object to having their names on the database – which is intended to protect children from paedophiles – and would not be visiting any schools as a consequence.

Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, described the Home Office policy as "corrosive and poisonous to every kind of healthy social interaction". He said: "I've been going into schools as an author for 20 years, and on no occasion have I ever been alone with a child. The idea that I have become more of a threat and I need to be vetted is both ludicrous and insulting. Children have never been in any danger from visiting authors or illustrators, and the idea that they should be is preposterous.

"This reinforces the culture of suspicion, fear and mistrust that underlies a great deal of present-day society. It teaches children that they should regard every adult as a potential murderer or rapist."

The Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) is being managed by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, set up after the 2002 murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by Ian Huntley, a janitor at their school. All individuals who work with children from 12 October will be required to register with a national database for a fee of £64. The former Children's Laureate Anne Fine, the author of more than 50 books, said the scheme was "governmental idiocy" which would drive a wedge between children and adults.

"When it [the VBS] becomes essential, I shall continue to work only in foreign schools, where sanity prevails," she said. "The whole idea of vetting an adult who visits many schools, but each only for a day, and then always in the presence of other adults, is deeply offensive.

"Our children will become further impoverished by this tiresome and ill-considered scheme, and yet another gulf will be created between young people and the rest of society." Michael Morpurgo, another former Children's Laureate whose recent successes include the play War Horse, said the compulsory database of school visitors was "a nonsense" which would put writers off visiting pupils. "It's yet another example of the Government going way over the top," he said. "Writers don't go to schools for the money, they do it because they want to bring their stories to children and make readers of them.

"The notion that I should somehow have got myself tested or passed in order to do this is absurd. I know there has to be security in schools, and that's fine, but this is insulting and doesn't go any way to protecting children."

Anthony Horowitz, the author of the popular Alex Rider series of children's spy novels, said the £64 fee had "a nasty feeling of a stealth tax about it", and that, like Pullman and the others, the introduction of the database marked "the end of school visits" for him.

"Like so many of Labour's laws, it's just an ill-thought-out by-product of a general law to stop suspect people going into schools. And yet the Government doesn't seem to have either the courage or the sense to realise that they've got to make an exception here.

"A child who admires a writer has a great belief in that writer as a good human being. If you say that, actually, the guy who's writing this book could be a sick pervert and we've got to protect you from him, I think you're not exactly sending out the most positive message."

He added that the timing of the scheme was particularly baffling, as last year was the National Year of Reading, during which the Government heavily promoted the practice of authors visiting schools.

Quentin Blake, who rose to fame as Roald Dahl's illustrator and became the first ever Children's Laureate in 1999, said the Government was guilty of "grotesque misunderstanding" about what happens on school visits, and that he would refuse to pay the registration fee if he was asked.

"A lot of these people are asked to visit schools because they are known already," he said. "You don't ask Philip Pullman or Michael Morpurgo because you don't know who they are, and you don't go to the trouble of being the Children's Laureate to pay £64 to have permission to talk to children. That is bizarre."

A spokesman from the Home Office said: "The UK already has one of the most advanced systems in the world for carrying out checks on all those who work in positions of trust with children and vulnerable adults. From October this year the new Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) will ensure these regulations are even more rigorous.

"The new scheme means every individual working in a field that requires more than a tiny amount of contact with children and/or vulnerable adults will have to be vetted. If they are passed, they will be placed on a register that says they are allowed to work in a regulated field. If they are barred, they will go on a separate register and it will be a criminal offence for them to try and obtain work in a regulated field, carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison. It will also be illegal for anyone to employ them."

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