The new Independent Safeguarding Authority checking procedure was much in the news a couple of weeks back, thanks in no small part to a number of prominent authors, and since I managed to get a letter on the subject printed in the Independent (second one down) I thought I'd use my August entry to put down some thoughts, a little belatedly, on the subject.
Opinions seem to be broadly divided between those who say, "If it keeps just one child safe, it's worth it. What about William Mayne?"and those who say, "This measure is part of a growing sickness in our society." I find it difficult to come down absolutely on one side or the other, but broadly speaking I'm with the second lot. A few weeks ago, just before this all blew up, I was on holiday in Cornwall and I took my children to a little playpark near the library in Padstow. And there, on the park fence, was a sign that said:
Beware of strangers.
Just that. Nothing else. No advice on what specific action five-year-olds should take upon seeing - gasp! - someone they haven't seen before. No suggestions of how one might prevent strangers from being strange. Just the ominous warning to beware of them.
And this, it seems to me, is at least part of the problem. We're living in a beware-of-strangers society. See someone unfamiliar? Run! Run! Scream! Lock yourself away! Whereas in fact, the sad truth is that for most at-risk children a better warning might be, "Beware of mum/dad/"uncle" Dave/the woman down the road who babysits sometimes."
The arguments as to why visiting authors pose next to no risk for the children we meet are, I think, well-rehearsed by now. The ISA's response, apparently, is that the risk is greater than you might think because “many authors also now communicate with their readers online, following events in schools and libraries or via their own websites”. The gaping hole in this argument, of course, is that authors don't have to be ISA-checked to have a website, and if we were all to stop visiting schools we'd still be able to communicate with our readers online.
Now, as I said at the beginning, I find it hard to come down completely on one side or the other - "better safe than sorry" is an important part of my psychological makeup, and I'd find it very difficult to live with myself if I opposed the all-encompassingness of the ISA checks and found myself on the winning team, and then it was found that someone who would otherwise have been caught by the vetting had got into a school and abused the trust of someone they'd met there. But this is pretty unlikely; I think if there'd already been a case where the new check would have made a difference, someone would have produced it in evidence by this point. And before you mention William Mayne again: the point there is that the scheme wouldn't have caught him. Check the relevant dates on that Wikipedia entry.
I should point out here that I'm not trying to make a special case for authors. I think there are all kinds of people who needn't be checked but who, under the new rules, will have to be - war veterans, police officers, charity workers, even MPs (although I expect they'll be able to claim the entire £64 registration charge back on expenses - but let's not go there...) - all of them people who visit schools to talk about their work or their experiences, but who don't go back to the same schools often enough to build up any kind of real relationship with individual pupils.
I'll be registering for the ISA scheme, because I want to go on visiting schools. And I shan't be taking it as a personal insult that I have to do this. But I do think it's unnecessary. Worse, I think it creates a false sense of security; because there are bad people out there, and it's impossible to prevent all of them from doing bad things. And when, in spite of this scheme, a bad person does another bad thing, I expect the government will come up with another headline-grabbing knee-jerk response which won't solve the problem, just as this scheme was created in response to the crime of Ian Huntley regardless of the fact that it wouldn't have stopped him committing that crime. It might have stopped him getting a job as a school caretaker, perhaps; but what is often missed in that discussion is that the two girls didn't know him as a caretaker - he didn't work at their school. They knew him as the boyfriend of their classroom assistant, a position for which, as far as I know, no vetting is required.
Gosh, this has all been a bit serious, hasn't it? Anyone spotted the rather poor wordplay in the title?