Anthony Seldon: We need trust, not more surveillance

Children must be protected but it’s a question of balance, and we’re losing it

Saturday 12 September 2009 00:00

What? The Children's Minister says that millions of Britons must be placed on a Big Brother style child protection database to prevent the risk of horrific murders such as in Soham in 2002.

Parents could face fines of £5,000 for driving the children of their friends to a sports event or a Sunday school meeting (dangerous) if they have not first been vetted by the Government. Some 11.3 million, one adult in four, could come under the eye of the Independent Safeguarding Authority from next month. Every person who comes into regular contact with children, in any way at all, must be approved by government officials who have checked their criminal convictions.

Quite right. It isn't the one quarter of adults who have been checked that worry me: it is the three-quarters who are not being checked. When driving their cars they are going to be passing children in cars, regardless of whether or not they have children in their own car. Carefree adults are walking the streets of our country, and could bump into a child, or even be overheard talking by one. It is potentially extremely dangerous. Surely the Government has not gone nearly far enough.

I would propose ensuring that every single adult is positively vetted in a process lasting perhaps two years to ensure that no one falls through the net. All parents have to be included, and until they are, their children must be taken away and placed somewhere safe. Prisons have lots of spare capacity, so they would make a safe place to put children, pending their parents' successful screening.

We have heard pathetic utterances from Philip Pullman and other famous writers and illustrators like Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo and Quentin Blake, who are so irate at being forced to register with the Government's database before they enter schools that they are now saying they will never visit them. Pathetic. Pullman called the scheme "corrosive and poisonous to every kind of healthy social interaction". He protested: "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... it teaches children that they should regard every adult as a potential murder or rapist."

Quite right and good riddance. But why stop with these dangerous mavericks? Let's ban their books and illustrations from school libraries too. They contain positively obscene ideas about make-believe animals and horses involved in strange practices.

I jest of course, and lest anyone is thinking that I, as a headmaster, take the subject lightly, let me say at once that I do not. We undertake meticulous checks of all adults who encounter young children at my school. Some evil people do prey on children and want to exploit and abuse them. Sometimes it has even been priests who have behaved in this way, actions made all the more shameful by the reluctance of the church to investigate the instances candidly and fully. Sexual and physical abuse can scar the young for life, as well as engendering in them the same vile propensities.

Children absolutely have to be protected, and any society or school that does not do this to the very best of their ability should sacrifice its guardianship of the young. It is simply a question of balance, and we are rapidly losing it. For every sick and bad person, like school caretaker Ian Huntley in Soham, and every pathetic and rotten parent and guardian such as those who were looking after Baby Peter, and for every sad pervert getting a thrill from looking at children's images on their steamed-up computer screens or interfering with children in public toilets, there are hundreds of thousands of healthy and affirming adults without whose physical presence, contact and love children will never learn to blossom into well-adjusted adults. The insanity of the whole approach is that we introduce fear and suspicion into what should be normal and spontaneous interactions between children and adults, to their mutual loss.

This is not just a British phenomenon. Countries across the world have seen similar intrusions by the state into the lives of individuals and family. Loss of trust, and fear of disaster and public humiliation, are the common factors driving government diktat. We have lost trust for a whole variety of reasons: crime and the fear of crime, decline of communities and opportunities for belonging, the break-up of the traditional family, the media making us believe that the horrific is the norm, and the frantic pace and scale of modern life, where we all too often lack the time and space to get to know each other. Trust and relationships take time to form: you cannot do them in a fast food way.

So what is to be done to rebuild sanity in society? Subjecting everyone in sight to checks, placing surveillance cameras everywhere, subjecting every institution to intimidating inspections, hemming in all relationships with contract and law, and driving everyone mad with bureaucracy is categorically not the way forward. Neither does it make any sense to weigh schools down with a crushing weight of regulation, while at the same time denying heads the chance to run their schools in the way that they want, teachers to teach the material they think best, and students to have the freedom to learn as they wish. No one is trusted any more. Not even the Government, who driven by fear has been so responsible for sucking the lifeblood and humanity out of schools as in so many other institutions.

The only way forward is to build trust from the ground up. In schools, children have to be brought up in an environment where they learn that trust is the norm, and that they themselves must behave in trustworthy ways. They should be brought up in an environment in which the default position is not suspicion and fear, but a "presumption of trust". Certainly, they must be taught about the perils of blind trust: there are bad people out there, as there are bad governments, but making parents who drive other children in their car submit to checks is an example of bad governing.

The author is headmaster of Wellington College. His latest book, Trust: How We Lost It and How to Get It Back, will be published in paperback by Biteback Publishing on 1 October at £8.99

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