Daring to criticise child protection policies

As a researcher into ‘no touch’ policies discovered, you criticise child-protection quangos at your peril.

Heather Piper

Topics Politics

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Fifty years ago, C Wright Mills deplored the widespread absence of a sociological imagination, and reminded us that the personal is always political – even if in complex ways.

Recent reports have provided contemporary evidence of the validity of these concerns, indicating a lack of awareness and imagination in the way that some organisations respond to perceived threats to their interests. This will become increasingly significant given government policy to permit a wide range of social and educational provision to move into the control of the private sector and charitable organisations. Reflection on the flawed way in which we work on and argue about social policy and practice, in which motives are hidden, key distinctions obscured, and unhelpful labels (left, right, libertarian) deployed, has been invigorated by some recent personal experience.

In recent years, as budgets have been squeezed, securing funding for educational or social research from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has become increasingly competitive and challenging. The ESRC has responded to its financial constraints by enforcing an even more exacting set of criteria for assessing project bids, requiring more demonstrable intellectual coherence. So it was good to hear, a year ago, that a new proposal I had made (with Bill Taylor and Dean Garratt) had been successful.

Since then we have been researching the difficulties encountered by sports coaches operating in a society where the avoidance of all risk is the desired goal. Our aim has been to understand how amateur and professional coaches and physical-education teachers have experienced and adapted to the appearance of a range of guidelines and injunctions covering, amongst other things, how they should touch – or rather, not touch – children and young people in the course of their work. We have been told of the burden of repeat Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks and the fears of false allegation/litigation. And we’ve also been told some frankly bizarre stories. For example, a young woman was allowed to coach girls because, she said, ‘I was female and because technically, I can’t penetrate … that’s what was actually said to me, you can’t actually physically do anything really’. In another example, sponge footballs have been introduced into playgrounds so no child can possibly be hurt by a normal one.

Gathering this information has been interesting, but the response from some quarters to the research, the researchers, and our potential findings, has also given pause for thought.

The ESRC requires that project outcomes should not merely be disseminated within the ‘academy’, but also that they should achieve ‘impact’ in the ‘real world’. This means bringing the research to the attention of the general public as well as practitioners, policymakers, and decision takers. As a result, when a reporter from a serious (or even not so serious) newspaper shows interest in the on-going work, researchers are likely to respond with enthusiasm.

In our case, The Sunday Times wanted to publish an item on the project, so we provided some background material and the piece duly appeared a few months ago as ‘Don’t touch – paranoia endangers children on sport courses’. That’s not quite the way we would have wished the research to be presented, but it was enough to bring our work to the attention of a wider audience. How some of that audience reacted, and what happened next, is informative and suggestive.

An important strand of the research has been interviews and dialogue with influential individuals and organisations active in providing and governing UK sport, offering opportunities for the team to respond to questions and concerns. However, in the course of this process, we were informed that contact had taken place between some of these influential people and that, from the centre of the sports establishment, some concerned about child protection had been questioning the legitimacy and purpose of our work, and that our motives had been queried.

To an extent this was no surprise, as anyone who has researched or commented on child protection/child abuse issues in a thoughtful rather than a kneejerk way has to deal with the suggestion that they must be indifferent to child abuse, or worse. But we were warned that, beyond being perceived as taking a lax approach to the safety of children and young people, we risked being understood as instruments of the ‘libertarian right’, keen to roll back the state and motivated by a general hostility to governmental interventions in the lives and freedoms of citizens. Thus our research outcomes and conclusions could be discounted. In a sense, all this is tittle-tattle, but these interventions are significant and deserve serious consideration.

I have my own, obvious personal responses to malign gossip. But after a previous long-term career as a child-protection social worker, and never having missed a chance of voting to pay higher taxes in support of public services, I am much more concerned about the wider implications for public discussion.

In a society where ‘research led’ policy and practice is common in rhetoric, but rare and mistrusted in reality, and where the ability to make careful distinctions and apply subtlety in social or political argument is in short supply – even among many who should know better – confusion and nonsense may be expected. Thus anyone who suggests that the current mainstream approach to (in this case) child protection in sport and PE is misguided and damaging to all concerned, can expect to be accused of not caring about child protection at all. For many, such issues are seen in black-and-white terms: it’s a case of ‘you’re either with us or against us’. Emotive and irrational appeals are advanced, to the effect that the most illiberal, invasive, prohibitive and expensive policies and initiatives are justified if there is a mere possibility that ‘just one child’s life may be saved’.

On top of this is an added sense that critical inputs into policy and organisational practice, prompted by concerns for actual effectiveness and social justice, are interpreted as part of a wider political mission. Inappropriate but attention-grabbing labels of left and right and libertarian are thrown in. The paradox is that, if representatives of major ‘voluntary organisations’ make the (false) allegation that others are dangerous libertarians who want to roll back the state, they would need to be blind to the truth that their own size, power, and status (making them, in effect, quangos) is actually dependent on the fact that the state has already been rolled back.

Rather than attacking others for being in favour of a diminished state, such organisations should understand their position as symptom and beneficiary of the state in retreat. Such major third-sector organisations have flourished in the marketised and competitive arena of public-service policy and provision, semi-detached from the government which has increasingly opted out of detailed discrimination and intervention, leaving ‘charities’ to fight over the pickings of a fragmented public sector.

As a result, the question of what is the right policy has become secondary to what is in the interests of such organisations. The status and credibility of any critique is attacked, public debate is closed down, and an illusory moral high ground is defended. For some individuals and organisations involved, closing down research and debate in an area like this is a matter of self-interested policy. Controlling the discourse on child protection in sport and elsewhere has provided such organisations with influence, jobs and resources, and in such a situation any reasoned challenge will be met with aggressive retaliation, no matter how confused and wrong-headed.

Those of us who value informed debate on real alternatives in policy and practice, must grow a thick skin in order to rise to the challenge. In the area of child abuse and protection, if I and my colleagues are being written off as neo-liberals, then false allegation as a tactic is apparently not confined to some young people.

Professor Heather Piper is a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Topics Politics


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