Thursday, October 19, 2006


Anything to upset ordinary people

Families were banned from taking photographs of their teenage sons playing football after a referee said that they were breaking child protection rules. The under-15s match was stopped three times and the teams warned that they would be deducted points if the 150 parents did not stop taking photographs or using their video cameras. The order followed widespread bans by schools and youth clubs preventing parents from recording plays and concerts, sports days and awards' presentations.

The referee of Sunday's match between Ashford Borough FC and Folkestone Invicta FC told parents that they could only photograph players if they had the written permission of every parent whose son was on the pitch. Alan Sleator, a spectator, was taking photos of his 14-year-old son Laurie during the first half of the game in Ashford, Kent, when he was upbraided by the referee. Mr Sleator, a 50-year-old PR executive, who drove 90 miles to watch the game, said: "He came charging up to me and I got a right dressing down. He said, `You can't take photographs, it's child protection.' Someone else was taking photographs and he did the same thing." The third time the referee spotted another parent brandishing a camera, during the second half, he halted the game for ten minutes.

Mr Sleator said: "He called both managers into the centre of the pitch and told them that if anyone in the crowd took any more photographs without his permission he would abandon the match and deduct points from both teams. "He instructed managers to confiscate cameras. I turned away and admitted defeat. Declaring parents who take photographs of their own kids to be criminals is hardly a great way to build the grass roots of the game." The match ended with Asford winning 3-2.

Bob Dix, chairman of Folkestone Invicta FC, said that he knew nothing about the guidelines and neither, according to parents, did football league officials attending neighbouring games on Sunday. Mr Dix said: "Most people who go to youth games are family or friends and many of them take pictures or videos. You see [David] Beckham and [Ashley] Cole's parents showing off videos of them playing when they were boys." The Football Association said that there were no rules preventing parents from taking pictures of youth matches. "We have issued guidance, not rules, that parents should try not to take individual pictures of children who are not their own and should record action shots and group shots."

Keith Masters, chief executive of the Kent Football Association, said: "There is no reason why the parents could not take photographs. I have spoken to the referee and explained this to him. He said that he was told to do this when he attended a child protection course."

The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations said last year that headteachers should ban cameras and videos from school events unless all families have given permission for their children to be filmed.



The escape of two terror suspects under control orders is as embarrassing to the Home Office as it is bewildering to the public. The men cannot be named, though one is understood to be an Iraqi and the other a Briton of Pakistani origin. The Government has refused to say why they are dangerous, or how or when they escaped, and will not give details that could alert the public, even though officials reportedly regard the Iraqi as a serious risk. The public has not been told whether police are seeking the men, whether the Home Office is to carry out a review or what is being done to ensure effective surveillance of the other former internees in Belmarsh prison who are also subject to control orders....

Since none of the 15 suspects has been charged, the Government has insisted that they cannot be named. And it is this insistence on anonymity that has greatly confused the issue. Lawyers argue that naming the men or giving any details of them would brand them as guilty. The Government therefore did not announce that they had escaped. Breaching a control order is in itself a crime. But although they are now fugitives from justice, it will still not name them. This certainly does not make it any easier to recapture them.

The obsession with anonymity is meant to protect the suspects' human rights and to ensure that any future trial is not prejudiced. Judges insist that there should be no public discussion of this or of the charges and substance of other current terror trials - many mired in delays and legal wrangling - lest this prejudice juries. The principle is admirable; the practice is absurd. Details of the control order cases are freely available on the internet. So too is most of the information banned from publication about other terrorist suspects. Ignorance may be no excuse, but this is an excuse for ignorance.

It is a basic principle of British law that justice should be seen to be done. This has become a casualty of terrorism. The only way out, ultimately, is to admit wiretapping evidence in court and to charge terrorist suspects or deport them.


Get the inspectors out of British nurseries

Government regulation of childcare is making life difficult for parents, children and carers

What do you want from your child’s nursery? A secure, affectionate environment run by people who know and like children, or a bureaucratic hell-hole where you are kept neatly updated with your toddler’s educational progress, by a coterie of highly-qualified staff who keep the kids at arm’s length and react to a high temperature or a display of bad behaviour by picking up the phone and telling you to come and get them?

For most parents, I would imagine this is a rhetorical question. When you drop off your little children at their nursery or childminder (mine are five months old, and two-and-a-bit), you don’t want them to come home able to count to 100. You want to know that they will have fun, not just be safe; that when they fall, they will be somehow comforted; that when they misbehave, they will be somehow reprimanded; and that when they become suddenly ill – as children do – they will be given something to help them.

But for the authorities, it seems like quite a different set of criteria apply. Childcare is under increasing pressure to change its priorities, so that box-ticking and back-covering count for more than confidence and common sense. Vetted to within an inch of their lives, subjected to all manner of formal inspections, and expected to play the combined role of schoolteacher, social worker, child psychologist and hyper-efficient bureaucrat, those young women who used to be called ‘nursery nurses’, who worked with children just because they liked them and were good at the job, are burdened under a whole load of contradictory expectations. Isn’t it time someone put a stop to this nonsense?

Enter Olive Rack. On 26 September this year, magistrates cleared Mrs Rack, a nursery owner for over 20 years, after being accused by two council inspectors of assault. Her ‘crime’? She disciplined a toddler – who had just hit a baby on the head - by leading her by the arm and putting her on a ‘naughty chair’. The toddler’s mother had agreed with Rack’s actions; the inspectors did not, and Rack was consequently suspended for a year (1). Now she has been vindicated, and the case has sparked some welcome discussion about the daftness of various childcare regulations: everything from refusing to allow nurseries to dispense Calpol or cough medicine without prescription or prior written consent, to the incompatibility of concerns about touching children with the basic need to change nappies and give them a cuddle.

‘Since I opened in 1987 the red tape and regulations have grown. There are more and more rules, to the point where they are actually strangling the nurseries. It’s certainly detrimental to the children, it’s spread to their lives as well,’ Rack told the Sunday Times (2). It turns out that she first clashed with inspectors more than a decade ago, by refusing to demote one of her staff who had no formal childcare qualifications: ‘She was brilliant at her job but in the end she lost confidence because of all the nitpicking,’ says Rack.

These are good points well made; and the ‘PC gone mad’ element of childcare bureaucracy, upon which much of the commentary has focused (3), is certainly due a trouncing. But the problem goes deeper than red tape and accreditation-mania. The formalisation of childcare is steadily undermining the confidence and trust that is essential for parents, children and childcarers alike.

As an example: my children’s nursery recently underwent an Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) inspection, and it was a gruelling thing to watch. Suddenly, staff working in this lovely, warm, relaxed environment were put on edge, their spontaneous confidence dulled by the scrutiny. After dropping off my baby and toddler on day two, the inspector ‘canvassed’ me at the door. Did I know my children’s key-worker? Was I familiar with the complaints procedure? Did I think anything could be improved?

As I talked about how brilliant the nursery was, her eyes glazed over – and I suppose this was no surprise. Because there is no space in these formal procedures for indicating the positive, intangible things you really value about your children’s nursery: the easy affection and no-nonsense approach of the staff; that if they phone you to request more nappies, the first thing they tell you is that your kids are fine, so you don’t visualise them being rushed to the hospital; that ‘compress and cuddle’ is given as a treatment for a minor tumble.

Indeed, many of the things that we parents so value when leaving our little children in the care of a nursery or childminder are now increasingly seen as suspicious, and in need of further documentation and procedure. This undermines childcare staff, who do a brilliant job for little money; it threatens to have a bad impact on the children, who at that age need confidence and cuddles like nothing else; and it is an insult to us, the parents. We don’t need an Ofsted report to tell us what our children’s nursery or childminder is like – we see it day in, day out, and if we don’t like something we deal with it. When official inspectors come through the door, it is as though we are being judged too. The upshot of all this is to create an environment that is tense at best, with everybody encouraged to second-guess what they should be doing, rather than just focusing on looking after the kids.

What purpose is served by this regulation? The authorities would argue that this ever-tighter process of inspection and standard-setting is for the benefit of the parents – that it will help us to have confidence that our children are receiving ‘quality’ care. But aside from the fact that parents may not share Ofsted’s standards, in its own terms this process is flawed. ‘Good’ nurseries and childminders that pass the test are put on the defensive by the inspection process, and forced to adopt policies and procedures with which they may not agree. In other words, doing well at inspection is no protection. And those that don’t pass? They just get shut down.

According to the Sunday Times, Ofsted closed down 11 nurseries and childminders last year, and suspended a further 30. Maybe these were shabby establishments – who knows? But we should remember what we are dealing with here. Childcare for very young children is, for the most part, privately owned and privately funded by the parents. It is also very scarce: unlike the state school system from primary education onwards, where a place does exist for every child somewhere, there is no guarantee that parents wanting daycare for their pre-schoolers will be able to get it.

Daycare isn’t even publicly funded, unlike schools. This begs two questions. What business has Ofsted, the body set up to inspect publicly-funded compulsory schooling, in inspecting private nurseries anyway? And if Ofsted doesn’t like what it sees, what is going to happen to those parents who rely on the childcare they, after all, have chosen?

It happens that the bureaucratisation and ‘nitpicking’ described by Olive Rack has coincided with an increasing expectation that women go back to full-time work after their children are born. So just at the point when there is a huge demand for daycare, the authorities seem hell-bent on making it less accessible, not more.

The shame of this is that there is a clear role for the government in the provision of childcare – greater subsidies, or even state-run nurseries, so that there are more places, which are more affordable for parents, and at the same time allowing nursery nurses, those very badly-paid unsung heroes of the childcare sector, to be paid more. It’s not rocket science. It’s just common sense.


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