Conor Ryan: We must not baby our schoolchildren

Thursday 17 June 2004 00:00
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A primary school head teacher in Malmesbury, Wiltshire has banned children from bringing home-made birthday cakes to school. Only shop-bought cakes will now be allowed, apparently to protect children from food poisoning. Derby City Council has told its teachers to consider cancelling trips on sunny days - dull days will reduce the risk of skin cancer.

A primary school head teacher in Malmesbury, Wiltshire has banned children from bringing home-made birthday cakes to school. Only shop-bought cakes will now be allowed, apparently to protect children from food poisoning. Derby City Council has told its teachers to consider cancelling trips on sunny days - dull days will reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Meanwhile, the NASUWT teaching union continues to advise its members not to take part in school trips for fear of being sued if something goes wrong. The union says that "ambulance-chasing" lawyers encourage parents to sue schools if their child stumbles in the playground.

Every such move makes it that much harder for young people to become fully rounded adults. It is unfair to blame teachers or council bureaucrats: they are simply responding to our growing expectation that children should be cocooned for as long as possible. But it's surely time to put risk back on the curriculum.

Of course, youngsters need sensible protection. Seat belts and smoke alarms have saved many children's lives. We must be vigilant about child abuse, after appalling cases such as Soham. Sunhats and sun cream can reduce harmful rays. And teachers should follow guidelines on how to organise school trips safely. But we must develop a sense of proportion. Excess protectionism means many young people don't learn to take responsibility for themselves until they leave home for work or university. A gradual learning process would serve them far better.

And the irony is that the more we try to eliminate one danger, the more we create new risks. Parents increasingly drive their children to school fearing for their safety, so fewer walk, cycle or take a bus. The result is there is more childhood obesity, because children miss out on exercise, and there are more problems with asthma, because the air around schools becomes clogged with exhaust fumes.

In any case, children face far more risks at home than at school: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents calculates that 121 children die in accidents in the home every year and another 179 die in road accidents. One or two children a year die in school trip accidents. Each is a terrible personal tragedy, and cases like the 1996 murder in France of the Cornish schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson are truly shocking. But the brutal truth is that far more children die in accidents in their own homes or on the roads.

Moreover, there are benefits in allowing responsible risks. Thousands of inner-city teenagers get the chance to learn canoeing and survival skills each summer on adventure activities schemes, where they experience a new environment, stay off the streets and are encouraged to stay on in education. Pupils who take school trips can broaden their horizons and bring to life the lessons from the computer screen, blackboard or computer.

The degree of risk has not changed greatly over the years. Indeed, with the near universal use of safety helmets by cyclists (a rarity when I cycled to school in the Seventies) and back-seat seat belts, some risks have been greatly reduced. But society has become more afraid to allow young people to learn to take responsibility.

Parents not only fear being judged as irresponsible by their peers if they rebel by trusting their children more, they also often feel the need to blame somebody else if things do go wrong. The former schools minister, Stephen Byers, calculates that education authorities have to spend £200m a year fighting lawsuits.

It is no wonder that backbenchers from the three main parties have drafted legislation that would allow parents to sign new "certificates of risk" limiting their right to sue schools for unavoidable accidents. The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, and the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, are said to be considering similar steps.

Of course, we must continue to take all reasonable steps to keep young people safe. But if we give teachers the responsibility to act in loco parentis, we must trust them to use their common sense in the process. Otherwise, we are denying young people the chance to grow up and learn how to make responsible choices and decisions. And that could be far more dangerous for them - and for society.

The writer was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001

education@independent.co.uk

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