This is number 1,789, or thereabouts, in my long running series, “What the hell is going on in this country?”
Every morning I wake up to emails from my researcher Hannah Lease. There are now thousands on my system, each one detailing some new piece of madness or a liberty that has been lost, or is disappearing. Over the years, themes have emerged. One of the more interesting for future historians and sociologists is the paranoia that has infected our dealings with children.
Britain is now a society that on the one hand incarcerates the children of asylum seekers for periods longer than any uncharged terrorist can be held, and on the other is insisting that sixth formers and parents of children who are taught at home must have CRB checks. Nowhere else in Europe would parents wishing to attend Christmas carol services and other events around the holiday season be asked to have CRB checks: even those who walk other people’s children to school have been told they must be checked.
Graham McArthur, the headmaster of Somersham School in Cambridgeshire and evidently one of the new breed of officious, trembling martinets that run our schools, was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying:
We rely quite a lot on parental volunteers. It is a community school and parental engagement is very important to being part of the community. For the carol service they will need clearance [from the banned list] which is basically something we can do on the day. You need to see details of who they are, where they live and make several phone calls.
It will not surprise you to learn that parents are being asked to take their passports so that their details can be checked.
In Liverpool, parents have been banned from speaking to teachers without an appointment. Sally Aspinwall, head teacher at the Beacon Church of England primary school in Everton, wrote to parents saying she was piloting new security procedures due to “recent health and safety guidance issued to schools by Ofsted”. This mystifying action results, of course, in the reduction of easy, natural communication at everyone’s expense but Aspinwall no doubt rejoices in her ability to issue bossy edicts with nothing less than the backing of Ofsted.
We have become so obsessed with paedophilia and child abuse that we are prepared to watch children being forcibly taken from their parents because the state or local authorities believe they know what is best for the child.
But how transparent are the processes involved in removing a child? Last week, the senior Tory MP Tim Yeo used parliamentary privilege to accused Suffolk county council “of snatching a baby from the mother’s arms”. He said that the council ignored the rights of the parents and child, and gave false evidence to an adoption panel without ever having questioned the ability of parents to care for the child.
Does this represent a society that is working for children, or is it another example of presumptuous intervention that shows itself as Dickensian heartlessness? I tend towards the latter, particularly when you consider the case of Child M, an Iranian boy of nine who has again been detained by the UK Borders Agency in Yarl’s Wood with a view to deporting him and his parents to Iran where they may face prosecution for possession of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
Local authorities and the state constantly protest that they are striving in the interests of children, but reading these stories and looking at the record on databases one really wonders if authority is in fact more interested in control over children and parents than promoting consistent policies of reasonable care. Certainly when it comes to the case of Child M, as with so many other kids locked up by the UK Borders Agency, the state’s much vaunted compassion suddenly seems to evaporate.
What puzzles me is the state’s unending curiosity. Recently the health department launched an 83-point questionnaire for parents of children who are entering school for the first time. The Healthy Child Programme and 83-point questionnaire has so far involved parents only in Lincolnshire. They have been told it is confidential but actually their answers will be open for inspection by hundreds of health workers, who will then visit families offering support.
Here are some of the questions:
• Do you (the parent) have friends you can talk to?
• How often does your child drink plain water?
• How many times a week does your child eat red meat?
• Does he or she often lie and cheat?
• How does your child behave when you leave a room?
Jill Kirby of the Centre for Policy Studies said:
Parents are not told how the information will be used, nor that they can refuse to give it … It risks labelling children and families as problem cases when the aim should be to help children escape from difficult backgrounds.
I don’t apologise for returning to the subject of children again. It seems to me that in its myriad policies on children – whether the persecution of kids on the street bypolice seeking DNA samples, the drawing up of huge amounts of information for databases inaccessible to parents, the use of CCTV in classrooms, the introduction of biometric registration systems, the unbelievably impertinent instructions about parents attending school events, the insistence on CRB checks and the production of ID in the most ridiculous circumstances, the treatment of asylum seekers’ children or the fascination with the most intimate details of family life – the government is displaying a mistrust of children and parents, which I seriously suggest has an almost sociopathic nature.
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