As Chair of Action for Children’s Arts I’m always pleased to see our often overlooked sector hitting the headlines. But two prominent recent news stories have brought more cause for concern than celebration.
Those of us who are invited into schools – storytellers, members of children’s theatre and TIE companies – will now have to pay £64 to be checked out for a register of people working with or around children. I’m all for lessening risk to children, but this measure seems overly draconian, particularly bearing in mind that all of us have to be CRB-checked anyway (I’ve been checked three times for different organisations), that we never encounter children in numbers of less than about thirty, and that we always insist on the presence of a teacher while we strut our stuff. Should we freelancers be treated in the same way as caretakers, dinner ladies and school secretaries? Well, I certainly don’t think we are special people, and, as Anthony Browne, the recently appointed Children’s Laureate, has said, there is no real reason why we shouldn’t be registered. But previous Laureates Anne Fine and Michael Morpurgo, along with Philip Pullman, consider the procedure an imposition, and say they will no longer visit schools. What will I do? I love my school visits and would miss them. The performer in me is allowed to show off as I act out my version of THE GINGERBREAD MAN or show my novelty books. And the children react positively and rewardingly to my BOOKS ARE FUN! message. I suppose I will end us grudgingly paying the £64, but I do resent it, and will certainly not pay until the last moment.
Looking at the bigger picture, will this new register achieve its aims? I suppose if it saves just one child from abuse it is worth doing. But, by the sound of it, registering won’t be arduous, and can it really be guaranteed to stop a determined child-offender? Of course not.
More worrying is the oddly named ‘rarely cover’, coming into operation when the school term starts in September. I can quite understand that teachers have in the past felt miffed when told to cover for colleagues who are absent – valuable ‘free’ periods in which lesson-planning or marking might be done are suddenly given over to babysitting another teacher’s class. Such cover, except in emergencies, must now be paid for or supply teachers brought in. The unfortunate knock-on effect is that head teachers who don’t want to spend valuable cash in this way may well decide to cancel school trips, including theatre trips. Already Birmingham Stage Company have reported three cancellations, directly blamed on ‘rarely cover’, for their forthcoming production of SKELLIG. This is on the curriculum, so it is ironic if children studying the book cannot come to see the play.
The hope is that primary and infant schools won’t be affected too much, because most of their classes have one teacher, not several. That teacher would invariably be the one to accompany his or her class. Having said that, some local authorities insist on one teacher for every ten children, which could mean more teachers having to be out of school.
This is one of those situations that was never intended by the powers that be, like the 1989 Education Act that insisted, rightly, that education should be free. But this meant parents could not be asked for money unless they were told payment was voluntary. So, inevitably, a third of parents refused to pay for theatre trips, which then often got cancelled. At Sadler’s Wells, my company Whirligig’s pencilled bookings for a week of performances decreased from 7,000 to 4,000 when the legislation came in. The law has never changed, as far as I know, but most teachers now ignore it. Hopefully, headteachers will not ignore ‘rarely cover’, but recognise the value of theatre trips and pay the extra costs necessary.
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