Saturday, 1 August 2009

Safe

We had dinner with Joad Raymond yesterday. It was good to see him as always and we always get well fed - Joad is a very good cook.

When I saw Paul yesterday we talked about the issue of the government register for visiting authors. This controversy blew up just before I headed off to the Lakes. I was interested to hear what Paul had to say, given that he is a teacher as well as an author.

Paul's view was - and I hope I'm not misrepresenting him here - that it seems unreasonable to expect other people working with children to be checked and not authors. As you may have read, Philip Pullman led the charge of authors outraged that they were having to pay to prove that they were not paedophiles. I have sympathy with both points of view.

I have been a governor at two primary schools here in the UK and there is a requirement that governors are CRB checked - basically a police check to make sure you do not have a criminal record. If I remember rightly, the school pays for this check.

Governors actually have little or no unsupervised access to children, but you can imagine the outcry if it turned out that a person with a precious conviction for a sex crime had been accepted onto a school governing body. It seems only prudent to check. Ditto with parent helpers (who do have significant access to children) and those who work in the kitchens or school office or as caretakers.

However, an author visit is very different. Schools are completely in control of how much access a visiting author has to the children. In most visits they are talking to a large group - sometimes very large indeed. Even then, there are staff present. On the odd occasions I have been left alone with children, there have always been a large group of them. And in any case, most authors - and I am certainly one of them - would ideally rather never be left alone with children. I prefer my visits to be about exciting an interest in writing and illustration and this is best done if teachers do the disciplining. If a school does not want a visitor to have unsupervised access to its children, then they are perfectly well able to prevent it.

The only one-to-one access I ever have with children is during a book signing when some children will take the opportunity to have a chat while you sign their book. This is one of the joys of going into a school because let's face it, if you don't like children you shouldn't be writing for them and hearing what they have to say is not only fun but vital, I think. But this is invariably in a crowded hall and the child I am speaking to is in (hopefully) a long line and there are staff around and a table between us.

Actually, there is one other one-to-one scenario. Often - almost every time in fact - when I go to a school, a child will wander over to me as the event is breaking up and the children are leaving and tell me about something they are doing. It might be about a story they are writing, but it might just as easily be about a band they are in or a movie they've just scene. These brief - and they are always brief - conversations are a big part of why I go into schools.

Paul is perhaps right that it seems inevitable that all visitors to schools will have to be checked in future. But will that include builders working on site - it certainly didn't when I was a governor. Will this list make children any safer? No it won't. Not one tiny little bit. Making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory - that would make children safer.

I agree with Philip Pullman that there isn't something odious about having to prove yourself innocent - particularly of such a vile crime and one that seems so utterly at odds with the urge to write for children. When I watched the news and heard a parent saying, 'If they haven't got anything to hide, then why are they bothered?' I agreed with him even more. If all of this results in fewer authors visiting schools it will be a tragedy.

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