The GOS spends a lot of his time writing about the absurd, unfair things that grip our modern society, the excesses of political correctness, the overweening arrogance of petty officials, the inefficiency of government at all levels, the hysteria that surrounds issues of "human rights" and child protection. So just once in a while it comes as a blessed relief to be able to report that occasionally, just occasionally, someone in a position of influence realises that they've been wrong and has the guts to say so.
Our NOT "Wanker of the Week" today is broadcaster Esther Rantzen, founder of Childline, who wrote recently in the Daily Mail …
"Last week, the nation was on its feet applauding a 14-year-old girl. We were thrilled by Laura Robson's glorious triumph at Wimbledon, and delighted by her charm and her intelligence. It was a rare moment, and a shock, not just to see a British tennis player making it to the very top, but a British child being encouraged to compete - and win.
Winning is against the rules for many children these days; even competing has become a sin. I have a godson, one of three brothers who until recently attended their local state primary school in Berkshire. They were not permitted to play football there. In fact, they were forbidden to play any competitive sports. The head teacher takes the view that it is morally wrong for children to experience losing.
So they played 'silly games' (the boys' description) - which nobody could lose - involving bean bags. The school didn't just over-protect the children, they protected the staff as well, to a lunatic extent. One day my friend was rung up and asked to come to the school urgently with a pair of tweezers. Luckily he was working locally. When he arrived, he found one of his sons had a splinter in his finger. None of the school staff was allowed to remove it because that would be an 'invasive operation'. My friend had brought the tweezers, as asked, and took the splinter out in a few seconds. After that, exasperated, he moved his sons to a different (private) school.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of watching the boys enjoying the drama and suspense of sports day at their new school. The whole event was deeply politically incorrect. There were plenty of races, and loads of winners. Since some of the races were in relays, every child ended up with a victory badge of some kind, but there was no doubt that the children who had the focus, determination and coordination to hurl themselves fearlessly to the winning line won more badges, and walked tall.
'Worse' was to come. I noticed one small girl crumpled in tears when she was told that she'd been disqualified for holding her potato on to her spoon with her thumb while she ran. Her teacher cuddled her, and a smile broke through the sobs. Cuddling a pupil! What would the thought police have said?
My friend told me with amusement that on his sons' first day at the new school, one of them got another splinter, and the matron removed it without a second thought.
Why should this kind of common sense be a privilege only available to children whose parents can afford private education? It is pervasive, this over-protective nonsense. I have been a victim of the thought police myself.
Not long ago, at an event run by a children's charity, a boy told me he had rung ChildLine because he was being bullied. 'Did you get through?' I asked with trepidation, since we can only counsel half the number of children who call for help.
'Yes,' he said with a wide grin. 'They were brilliant. I did what they said, and now the bullies are my best friends.' I was filled with delight, and told him so. 'I'm so happy,' I said. 'I'm going to give you a kiss.' And I did, on the top of his head.
The most senior executive of the charity took me aside some time later and rebuked me. One of the workers had complained about that kiss. I could hardly believe it. The child himself didn't complain - he thought, rightly, that I cared about him, and that I was overjoyed that ChildLine had been so helpful. Later that week, the boy rang me to ask if I was coming to any more of the charity's event. I had to be non-committal, so as not to disappoint him, but the truth is I don't expect the charity will dare invite me back. I might hug a child.
The irony is that, to an extent, I blame myself for this rubbish. By revealing the extent of child abuse in the BBC TV programme Childwatch in the Eighties, I was part of the revolution in child protection which created these insidious jobsworths.
All we intended to do was alert viewers to the truth - that most child abuse happens within the family home. And that there are ruthless, clever paedophiles who are sexually attracted to children and will worm their way into any profession that brings them into contact with them. But I had no idea the result would be senseless over-protection which pretends to see danger where there is none.
What is the real risk in taking out a child's splinter, or kissing the top of a little boy's head? Why deprive a child of the exhilaration of winning?
Even if you are hopelessly uncoordinated, as I was as a child, and never win a race, losing isn't a tragedy. There are plenty of other ways to excel. Isn't it sad to 'protect' children from sporting competition? For the non-academic child, isn't a winner's badge a wonderful boost to self-esteem? What has happened to common sense? We are throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Why did I want to change the way we protected children (even if I never for a moment imagined we would ever reach this insane state of affairs)?
Because for generations children had suffered in silence. Twenty years ago, in those distant, innocent days, nobody suspected the terrible abuse that could occur in care homes, churches and boarding schools. I investigated one such school, owned by a millionaire paedophile, who appointed two other teachers who sexually abused boys in the school secure in the knowledge that the children would be too fearful and ashamed to ask for help.
In my 20s, I used to visit children in a care home in Camden, North London. I never suspected a bad-tempered man who worked there as a 'house parent' was physically and sexually abusing ten of the children. I didn't like him, but it simply wasn't on my mental radar to think such crimes were possible. My ignorance meant those children I took out every week were far too ashamed and afraid to tell me about the abuse. 'I didn't want to spoil the only happy times we had,' one told me recently. In the past 20 years, we have discovered to our horror that some of the very people children should have been able to trust - in the Church, in sport, youth leaders, music tutors - had used their positions to assault and intimidate children.
The think-tank Civitas last week produced a report blaming our checks for criminal records for poisoning relationships between adults and children.
I disagree. Checks for a record of a violent crime or a sexual offence are necessary if we are to ensure abusers cannot continue to work with children after they are released from prison.
Denis Cochrane, a music teacher at a school in West London which my own children attended, was very recently convicted of indecently assaulting a six-year-old girl.
He told her it was a punishment, and intimidated her throughout her time in the school. As a result, she had constant nightmares and suffered from serious depression. He destroyed her childhood. She was not the only child he abused, and he is now in jail. Without Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, he could be released in a few years and become a piano teacher, or the local church choir master, or produce the local children's pantomime."(Mind you, Esther, it can work the other way. Remember the case of Darryl Gee, the music teacher who died in prison after being falsely accused and convicted of raping a pupil? How would CRB checks have helped him?)
"As a trustee of the NSPCC, I have been CRB checked, and was proud and happy to go through the process. But these checks must be properly and sensibly conducted. My son Joshua, a medical student, recently applied for work experience as a volunteer in a hospice.
Although he had been CRB checked very recently by his university, he was told he would have to be checked again to work in a different health authority, and there was no time for the process to be completed. The hospice lost a talented volunteer. He lost crucial experience. He has not applied for any other work during the summer vacation because he will need to be checked yet again. I am told this complicated nonsense applies throughout the medical profession when health professionals take up new posts.
How much does all this duplication cost? How much time does it take? Reports suggest the process is breaking down under the huge work load the Home Office are undertaking. Unsurprisingly, it is said they have made mistakes. Personally, I cannot see why we who have been checked are not given the equivalent of a driving licence, to be endorsed if we commit a relevant crime. But maybe that is too simple.
Unless we revise this hysterical attitude that every child should be treated like a china doll who must not be touched by adults, the bitter irony is that our most vulnerable children will pay a tragic price.
There has been research which looked at children from the most deprived backgrounds who somehow survived, and grew up to be successful, happy and prosperous. The researchers found the difference was that someone outside their immediate family - a neighbour perhaps, or a teacher - cared about them, noticed when they were unhappy and praised them when they succeeded.
Unless we use our common sense and recognise that most people are not a threat to children, I am deeply worried that this kind of caring relationship will be obliterated. Which means some children will be deprived of their only emotional lifeline.
Last week, I met one of Europe's most successful architects. He told me his parents were extremely poor, and that because his mother had a serious mental illness, his father left the family home. But they had a neighbour - a man with no children of his own - who noticed his talent when he was young and gave him art classes.
Another friend of mine, who has become extremely successful, grew up in Yorkshire, the son of an alcoholic mother and an inarticulate father. Across the road from their terrace house lived a man who loved books, and taught my friend - who was a clever, ambitious little boy - how to study. They spent hours together talking together. Can you imagine what the thought police would make of these relationships? These days, would those kindly neighbours themselves be too afraid to become unofficial mentors, in case they were accused of sinister motives? Debating these issues on Radio 4's Today programme, John Humphrys asked me: 'Can you not see that one side effect of the setting up of ChildLine has been this over-reaction?'
Yes, John, now I can. The day after sports day last week, my friend took my godson and his brothers to the Marwell Activity Centre in Hampshire for a birthday party. The boys had a fantastic time on the slides, and my friend recorded their delight on a camcorder. Until, that is, a member of staff came and stopped him, because: 'The law says we will need written permission from all the other parents.'
There is, of course, no such law. I asked the Centre why they had stopped him, and they said it was company policy due to 'the response we have had from our clients'. Not only stupid and narrow-minded, but just the kind of language to make your blood boil. I think we all need to rethink our attitudes.
As my friend told me that day: 'All I wanted to do was to preserve some lovely memories, moments that will never come back again.' Childhood should be filled with lovely moments, shared by adults and children together. What a tragedy if, even from the best of motives, we deprive ourselves and our children of the affection and fun that make childhood so precious."
Fortunately Esther Rantzen is not alone in recognising the hysteria she has unwittingly encouraged, and the draconian powers she and others like her have placed in the hands of petty officials and politicians who lack the intelligence and sense of proportion to wield them properly.
As Nicola Pearson wrote in The Times recently …
"If you were an energetic nine-year-old boy who loved school, did your best but also loved charging about, trying to beat your friends at every game possible, imagine the hell of our current state school system where ball games are banned from the playground in case someone gets hurt, there is no outside play in bad weather and you are constantly in trouble for being too competitive because winning is not what it's about. And, worse, Jamie Oliver fruit smoothies have replaced sponge pudding in your school dinner, so you're starving by two o'clock.
Sue Palmer is a former head teacher, literacy adviser and the author of 21st Century Boys. She says it is a biological necessity that boys run about, take risks, swing off things and compete with each other to develop properly. "If they can't, a lot of them find it impossible to sit still, focus on a book or wield a pencil," she says, "so their behaviour is considered 'difficult', they get into trouble and tumble into a cycle of school failure."
Boys are three times as likely as girls to need extra help with reading at primary school, and 75 per cent of children supposedly suffering from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are male. "We are losing boys at a rate of knots, particularly in literacy," Palmer says, "because at some point in the past 30 years, masculinity became an embarrassment."
Research by Simon Baron-Cohen, a respected Cambridge professor, that began as an investigation into autism, puts a solid case for biological male/female differences in the brain, with boys tending to be "systematisers" and girls "empathisers". This explains why boys generally are less keen on reading and comprehension, and lag behind girls in literacy. A lot of boys find it easier to explain the workings of a watch than to discuss how a character in a story is feeling. "But now," says Palmer, "apart from the very bright ones, boys aren't even doing better at maths and science."
Some people blame this nosedive, first noticed in the mid-Nineties, on the "feminisation" of education - too many women teachers, girl-friendly classroom environments and modular exam systems that suit girls' study skills but disadvantage risk-takers. "Geniuses are much more likely to be male," Palmer says, "but if you don't tick the right boxes, you fail."
There are seven times as many women primary school teachers as men, but Christine Skelton, Professor of Gender Equality in Education at Birmingham University, argues that there have always been far more female teachers than male. "Obviously there are some women who understand active boys, and some men who don't, just as there are energetic girls and inactive boys," she says.
The current generation of teachers, though, were born and raised in an atmosphere dominated by women's liberation and "non-gender-specific" education that began in the Seventies. Barbies were banned, most protagonists in books were female and there was no tolerance of war or superhero play. As a head teacher, Palmer remembers making her reception teacher remove all the cloakroom pegs that depicted tractors for boys and bunnies for girls.
"The belief was that you were shaped by your environment, and it was the teacher's responsibility to 'socialise' boys away from their natural inclinations and to encourage girls to study traditionally male subjects such as physics and technology," she says.
Palmer would never deny that some of it was absolutely necessary - but with movements such as Reclaim the Night, Greenham Common and Gay Pride, groups that offered an alternative perspective to the traditionally dominant male view taking centre stage, masculinity became suspect. "I really think," she says, "that the almighty cock-up of the sisterhood in the Seventies was that we believed we could turn boys into girls."
Palmer says that most women are not natural risk-takers, so for teachers who have not helped to bring up brothers and who don't have sons, boys' behaviour can be frightening. "Play-fighting, for example, reaches a peak at age 7 or 8 but is not actually aggressive," she says. "It's social - it's the way boys get to know each other and see how the other one ticks. A lot of women teachers are horrified when I suggest that they should let boys get on with fighting and shouting because eventually they'll come out the other side and start negotiating."
Another problem for boys seeking adventure is that, because we live in an increasingly risk-averse society, children are rarely allowed to play unsupervised. When did you last see a group of boys climbing a tree?
"There is a rational fear of increased traffic but also an irrational fear of stranger danger, fanned by media reporting of child abduction," says Palmer. "Parents are worried about being considered irresponsible, so they never let their children out of their sight." And because we are not used to seeing boys playing outside, when we do it feels hostile even when what is going on is not particularly boisterous.
Dan Travis, a sports coach, argues that it is very important for boys to muck about on their own. "Coaching is formal and necessary but should only take up 20 per cent of the time they play," he says. "The informal 80 per cent is where most of the learning and practising occurs - away from adult supervision."
Travis is running a campaign to bring competition back to school sport. "The Sport for All ethos took hold in the Seventies and never let go," he says. "Games are only about inclusion, with no winners allowed." This is disastrous for boys, who need to compete to establish their place in the hierarchy, which is how they organise their friendships and something that they understand from nursery age onwards. It is also bad for sport. Palmer adds that "self-esteem" arrived from America and now no child is allowed to "lose" at anything.
Palmer is not suggesting that boys should be allowed to behave in any way they want. What we need, she says, is to celebrate what makes them boys and help them to understand the things that don't come naturally to them. That means getting them outside more, particularly as space gets squeezed in urban schools. "Not letting boys be boys is not only detrimental to them but also to girls, many of whom become overcompliant with what is considered 'good' behaviour and could do with a shove outdoors to take more risks," she says. "I certainly wish that had happened to me."
Palmer is especially enthusiastic about the few "outdoor nurseries" that we have in this country, and about the Scandinavian system that puts off formal learning until the age of 7 or 8, concentrating instead on playing outside and the development of social skills.
In the ideal Palmer world, everyone would go to a Scandinavian-style school. What we are doing instead is bringing in the Early Years Foundation Stage, a new government framework that becomes law in September. It says that by the age of 5 children should be writing sentences, some of which are punctuated. "That would be impressive for a seven-year-old," says Palmer. "So rather than tackling the imbalance in the way that we have treated boys for too long, we are going to make them sit still and learn even younger. I'd call that little short of state-sponsored child abuse."
The GOS says: Well said. So would I.
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