Yesterday I met a woman training to be a teacher who made a remarkable comment that I will remember for a long time.
I was talking to PGCE trainees at one of our leading universities about the legal, moral and ethical issues in teaching. I was trying to re-assure them that the law gives teachers a lot of authority as well as responsibility.
The trouble was that these trainees had just had a session on ‘safeguarding’ and were clearly – even visibly – nervous and confused about the questions I was asking them.
One of the questions was: ‘Are teachers allowed to touch children?’ I could see their eyes widening, as though I’d said something sinister.
So I asked another, which freaked them out even more: ‘Do you know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching?’ Silence.
How have we got to the point where teachers don’t know how to answer such questions with confidence? (The answer by the way, to both questions, is a very definite and confident ‘YES!’)
But hundreds, if not thousands of schools in this country, have advised – nay, required their teachers (it has to be said on the back of advice from some teacher unions) – ‘to avoid physical contact with their pupils and students unless they have to restrain them in an emergency’.
In my view, schools that have adopted such policies are mad. While they say they are doing it to protect their staff from vexatious or malicious allegations – actually they are engineering neglect into the professional practice of their teachers.
It not only undermines teachers’ social and physical confidence around their pupils (wondering for example, whether it is appropriate to comfort a distressed child or congratulate and praise their achievement) but it also undermines their skills (wondering for example, whether they should manipulate their arms, hands and fingers on a musical instrument, a pencil or paintbrush or hold them in balance while demonstrating PE techniques).
In the middle of the discussion, the young woman I mentioned, named Lucy Carter made the most remarkable contribution and one which had never occurred to me before.
She said that she had worked at a school where such policies had been adopted but eventually they realised that the only times they were touching children were negative ones – restraining them when fighting, restraining them when trying to run out of class or removing disruptive children. They realised the children were never being touched in positive, affirming ways.
What an indictment this is of our profession - a so-called caring profession - that we have allowed this situation to gain hold, all in the name of ‘safeguarding’.
We need to remind ourselves – and be confident the law gives us this authority as well as the responsibility - that a duty to keep children safe from harm and abuse is quite distinct from the ‘duty of care’ we have to provide for their physical, emotional, social and psychological well-being.
If you’re working in a school with such restrictive practices, I’m not suggesting you undermine them - you’ll have to work within the school’s adopted policies.
But my advice is this. Once you get into a position of authority or influence, change those policies. If you can’t do that, then find another school - because you and the children will never flourish in such a place that has so utterly confused the core purpose of its professional practice.