Wednesday, 5 August 2009

It frequently does happen to an author! - Meg Harper

Well done to John on his very measured and all encompassing post about the ISA controversy! I am still entirely confused. I thought ISA was going to destroy CRB checking at one fell swoop but the child protection bod at my church (yes, churches need such people these days) says all Sunday School teachers still have to be CRB checked in September even though we’ll have to be ISA’d in October. Pourquoi??? Personally, I could paper the walls of our downstairs loo with my assorted CRB checks. I even have one because I volunteered to dog-sit for Guide Dogs for the Blind – not, thankfully, because they thought I had nefarious desires about the dog but because I might wangle my way into the lives of vulnerable people. I was looking forward to no more CRB forms (which I could now do blindfold) but perhaps I am mistaken! If anyone can clarify the situation, I’d be delighted – and personally, I’d willingly pay £64 to put an end to this torture!

But this whole issue does bring to mind some of the conundrums regular school visitors face. I have just completed a residency in a nearby primary school, helping year 6 to write and publish their own book – and very delighted we all are with it too. In theory, of course, I should never have been left alone with the class. I had both a teacher and a teaching assistant to help with the project. But towards the end, when we had children flying backwards and forwards between computer room and classroom and sometimes more help was needed in one place than the other, of course I got left on my own sometimes for short periods. I’m a qualified teacher, I run a youth theatre, teachers soon get the vibe that the kids are not going to run amok if I’m left on my own – and so it happens. Am I really going to abandon ship every time? Theoretically I should, according to the terms of my public liability insurance – but I could be putting the children more at risk by doing so. I know darn well that I’m not going to interfere with them sexually – but I also know darn well how quickly some kids can put themselves at risk when left unsupervised. So which should I choose?

I chose to leave on a school visit a few weeks ago. As part of an arts week, I was booked for three days to do a series of 6 two hour drama workshops with years 7, 8 and 9, based on my book, ‘Fur’. It was an excellent initiative with lots of artists from a huge number of disciplines sharing their know-how. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was very challenging, especially as the groups were mixed age and didn’t know each other to start with. I had to work hard to win some of the kids over but we got there on the whole – until my final workshop!

This group was something else. I could tell almost from the word go that a good half of them were in the mood to undermine. I persevered and we made progress but I was using every teacher tactic I knew. After about half an hour I made a decision. I was not there as teacher. I was there as visiting artist. I should not be having to ‘do the discipline’ with such a vengeance. I was there as a respected guest and I should be being treated as such.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that I am stopping this workshop now and I am going to reception to explain that I am doing so because the attitude of this group is unacceptable.’

Appalled silence.

‘Oh, please don’t do that!’ said the randomly allocated minder/teacher. ‘I will speak to the group. We can’t have this!’

She spoke to the class. I agreed to carry on and the majority of the kids were more co-operative. There was one notable exception, a young lady who had interrupted regularly with comments like ‘Why do you have to read from you own book? You wrote it. Why don’t you know if off by heart?’ After another fifteen minutes or so, I stopped the workshop again. Politely, I told the young lady that I was now excluding her from my workshop. The teacher agreed that she should go. (It turned out later that this was a girl who was usually excluded from normal lessons. ‘I don’t know why she was in your workshop!’ I was told.) But then, to my astonishment, the teacher disappeared after her!

This was the point when I chose to leave. This was completely unacceptable. I was with a group I barely knew who had already proved themselves to be difficult and unco-operative – and now I’d been abandoned by my minder for I knew not how long! I told the class that I was not insured to stay without a teacher and left. Not a great moment.

Fortunately, I found my minder within a few minutes, she apologised profusely, we returned, I continued the workshop and we achieved most of what the other five groups had achieved – but the whole episode gave me pause for thought. Luckily for me, I work with teenagers every week as well as writing. I was naffed off and irritated but that was all. But I can imagine that some visiting authors would have been extremely upset by what happened – and as regards the ISA controversy – well, it just goes to show that although the lauded likes of Philip Pullman may believe they will never be left alone with kids, there are plenty of us working as creative writers in schools who will! Schools are places where unpredictable things happen. You cannot legislate for them all. I am entirely with John in not wanting to come down on one side or the other in this debate. There are points on both sides. But my point is that these are muddy waters. There are no guarantees of anything where you put a huge number of young people into one building with a relatively small number of adults. What is supposed to happen may not. That’s just school life. I wasn’t supposed to be doing my presentation in the room next to the very shrill recorder group. A small, disturbed boy wasn’t meant to do a moony in at the end of my talk. It was no one’s fault that there was a fire in the adjoining community centre causing us all to be evacuated. I have never been more surprised than when the Headteacher said, ‘It’ll be all right if I have my piano lesson at the other end of the hall while you’re doing your workshop, won’t it?’ (No, it wasn’t and she didn’t!!!) And so on. All this and more has happened to me as a visiting author.

ISA? CRB? I don’t know what you need to keep the kids and yourself safe. Maybe just a bomb-proof attitude and a willingness to say ‘Enough’s enough!’


catdownunder said...

Does this £64 fee last a lifetime or does it have to be renewed?
As a former teacher from a family of former teachers all I can do is sympathise from afar!

Katherine Langrish said...

And why £64, precisely?

Katherine Langrish said...

But Meg, what an experience! I applaud your cool professionlism. And I agree. I feel sure Philip Pullman is never left alone with children. He's a celebrity by now, much as he may dislike the idea, and teachers and staff will WANT to hear him. Whereas the last school visit I did, I never set eyes on any of the teaching staff from the beginning of the day to the end, not even to shake hands or say hello. It was me and the librarian throughout.

Nicola Morgan said...

btw everyone - accoridng to the website (last time I looked, which i admit was a few weeks ago) this doesn't start coming into force till autumn 2010. Autumn 2009 is when they start working out how to implement it ...

Meg Harper said...

Oh joy! Guess I'd better go and bore my pants off reading the web-site! Yes, I've done visits like that too, Katherine - or at least where the teachers turn up with the classes looking somewhat bemused while the wonderful, friendly, excited-about-books librarian takes charge! Three cheers for school librarians!

adele geras said...

I am not doing anything about this because I live in hope that it will ALL CHANGE after the next election. And I am not a celebrity like Philip P but also have never ever been left alone with a group. I don't do the kinds of workshops Meg describes, for which I admire her greatly and it ought not to be beyond the wit of man to devise a system that excludes those of us who don't have such hands-on contact with children. And lots of those who do, too! The irony is, (and a lot of people have pointed this out!) that the legislation will do little to protect children from anyone willing to lie and who doesn't have a criminal record.

Meg Harper said...

You are so right, Adele. Maybe that's why we're seen as suspicious - we're all so good at making up stories!!!