News Views : July 2006

A mixture of news items, future events, sales pitches, comments and whimsies, including dealing with paedophiles, things to do this summer, honours, sign language, children’s mental health, CRB checks, tantrums, emergency admissions and black role models.

Megan’s Law

Here we go again. The Home Secretary has sent his Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe MP, to America to see what the impact of Megan’s Law has been. Care will need to be taken in transferring any of the lessons learnt from the United States to Britain, as the cultures differ.

Ideally, all major social problems should be shared openly with the community, whose members should deal with them calmly and rationally. It was on this basis that two children who murdered another in Norway were re-integrated into their school after a fairly short break. But in Britain, the two boys who killed Jamie Bolger had to be locked up in secure units and returned to the community under false names. Unhappily, we have a strong vigilante streak in our culture which, when coupled with poor spelling ability, has been sufficient for a paediatrician’s home to be attacked.

The News of the World may believe that they are on a moral crusade in wanting to out paedophiles, but the people who are roused to action by their campaigning are not capable of distinguishing between types of offender or levels of offence. Sexual offending against children is a complex field. At one end of the spectrum there are serious serial paedophiles who want to gratify themselves regardless of the impact on the children they abuse, and at the other there are family members who are loved by their victims despite the abuse. They need different responses.

We have serious doubts as the viability of implementing Megan’s Law. Would it cover all offenders, or would it exclude those who have only abused family members? Would the offenders have to be restricted to the area where people have been notified about them, as they might offend elsewhere? Would their offences ever be deemed spent, even if their record related to adolescent behaviour? How would we stop vigilante action? How would we trace offenders who had gone under ground?

As alternatives to Megan’s Law, it would be possible to provide agencies with sufficient resources to monitor paedophiles more closely, and to focus efforts on ensuring that existing services function effectively, rather than set up a whole new system. With modern technology it would take little effort to identify areas where hostels could be sited away from children, for example on trading estates. Local authorities could be required to plan, so that every community has a range of accommodation to house offenders with appropriate levels of supervision, to avoid grouping large numbers of offenders together. Supervision under licence could be extended for as long as people judge that the offenders present a risk. Circles of support could be developed to support and monitor offenders in the community. All these measures could have a real impact, as some of them demonstrably do.

We hope that the Home Secretary goes for the long-term solution, with all the slog of daily supervision which is entailed, rather than the quick fix that would keep the News of the World happy.

Things to Do This Summer

We get a lot of emails advertising activities for children. We have no idea whether they are the bees’ knees or howling spoofs, but if you are looking for something for your children to do this summer, what about these?

*           Footie Chick, a brand of soccer clothing for girls, has launched two summer schools for girls to play football. The camps are open to girls, aged 10 to 19 years.  For more information about the camps and to register details, please call 0845 009 0933 or look at the company website

*           As one of a number of family-oriented activities, the Barbican is running a day entitled Mostly Mozart ; the Big Sing for Families at 10.00 a.m. on 8 July for whole families to come together and learn to sing Mozart. For more details about this and other events, go to .

*           The American Museum in Britain (which is set in beautiful countryside near Bath) is running a series of children’s events on Thursday afternoons from 27 July, including native American puppets, flying toys, circus clown mobiles and climbing jacks. On the evening of 12 August Chapterhouse Theatre Company will present Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Children are invited to bring their own. Tickets from Theatre Royal Bath (01225 448844), Bath Festival Box Office (01225 463362) . Bears enter free.

*           Sheffield City Council are organising a Children’s Festival and they are looking for a camel which they can use for the exhibition. The camel would be needed between 1 – 26 July and event organisers would return it to its owner safe and sound. If a member of the public or organisation has a toy or statue of a camel, which is at least 4ft tall, then please contact Pauline Eveleigh on 0114 2814050 or email [email protected].

Sheffield Children’s Festival is a major annual event in Sheffield’s civic, cultural and educational calendar. The Festival transforms Sheffield into a giant stage and art gallery from 17 June to 22 July and is unique because the youngsters themselves produce all the work. The five-week Festival provides over 22,500 children and young people in Sheffield with the opportunity to develop their creativity in learning and to take part in cultural activities. The children also have the chance to showcase their performances and/or artwork in a number of venues including the Winter Garden, the Workstation, the Crucible Theatre and the Merlin Theatre.  For more information, see

*     The Science Museum has a string of Summer Holiday Activities from 29 July- 31 August 2006. They say there is “a great selection of free workshops, and discovery sessions are lined up. Come on down for the Science Museums very own game show, or test your powers of deduction with mysterious medical objects! Learn amazing facts about robots, make your own racing car or biplane and even learn how to fake smallpox!” All events are free and are held on a drop-in basis. Visitors can call 0870 870 4868 for up to the minute information, or visit . There are special exhibitions about sharks, mobile phones, Brunel, the Spitfire and medical traditions from round the world. What more could one want?

*           Westonbirt Arboretum in glorious Gloucestershire is organising its annual Festival of the Tree  from 21-28 August. Central to this week-long event is the internationally renowned Sculptree giant wood-carving event, with chainsaws, axes and chisels at the ready as a dozen specialist sculptors set about transforming whole tree trunks into amazing works of art. There’s also a craft show called Exhibi-tree (25-28 August) featuring more than 150 exhibitors, traders and demonstrators making and selling everything to do with trees. And there’s Family Tree (21-28 August) which offers a packed agenda of craft activities that everyone can try. There’s a daily changing programme on offer – make a dream catcher, create a tree frame for your favourite photo, or magic up a wand. Kids can also enjoy traditional wooden rides and interactive trails through the arboretum. For more information, visit or call the Arboretum on 01666 880220.

*           Loughborough Town Hall will be hosting two summer schools  aimed at 8-11s and 12-16s,  working with performance professionals to provide the best possible experience for all participants.  The junior group will be working with Ildikó Rippel from Zoo Indigo Theatre Company and Gabi Reuter, a dancer who works with FLYdance and Requardt & Company.  The seniors will work with Ildikó and her fellow company member, Rosie Garton.

The Town Hall Youth Theatres have worked with traditional material like Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht in the past, but also use themes which are interesting to the groups which have included magic, travel, detective stories and fairytales. The junior week will run from Monday 17 – Friday 21 July, 12-4pm and the senior from Monday 24 – Thursday 27, 12-5pm.  Each week costs only £35.  If you or your child would like to get involved or if you would just like more information please call Loughborough Town Hall Box Office on 01509 231914.

*           Last, but not least, the Horniman Museum at Forest Hill in south London is opening its aquarium – free – on 14 July. First opened on a nearby site in 1871, it is now “greatly enhanced”. It will include massive sea-water tanks in seven zones, with 150 different species, including jelly fish, crabs and coral reefs. For more details, see .

Congratulations …..

….. to Barbara Hearn of the National Children’s Bureau on getting her well-deserved OBE in the recent Birthday Honours. Barbara has been deeply immersed in the development of many of the Government’s policies concerning children. It is good that this Government listens to professionals with expertise in children’s matters, and much of the influence of people such as Barbara goes on quietly behind the scenes. So, it’s good too that her work is also publicly acknowledged.
….. to Professor Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England, who has a knighthood. We have no doubt that he will not let his honour distance him from children, but we hope the new handle will help him open doors in the corridors of power – though he’s pretty good at barging in already.
….. also to Lynne Berry, Esther Rantzen and Jane Campbell for their honours for work with Childline, the GSCC and SCIE respectively.

Sign Language

We are publishing a piece this month written by Cath Smith about the use of sign language to communicate with pre-language babies and young children who have difficulty communicating orally. It is a fascinating idea.

Have you ever noticed how many developments designed to help someone with a disability actually help the able bodied as well? Power points at waist height mean less bending down. Toilets designed to space standards suited to people with physical disabilities are a real pleasure to use by comparison with the cramped loos found in department stores where you have to stand on the seat or hutch round the side of the bowl to get the door shut. And those little rubber mats make opening tight jam jars a lot easier.

In the case of sign language, there are various ways in which it can help. There was the famous sketch with Les Dawson cross-dressing as a Lancashire mill girl; the noise of the looms made a combination of signs and lip-reading vital. In a rather different setting, we learnt the sign alphabet at school to permit noiseless communication in class. Then there the occasions when you see people gesticulating to each other across a crowded street, but these days we suppose that they would simply phone each other.

Mental Health

Chris Durkin has focused his piece this month on two recent reports on children’s mental health. The report by the British Medical Association, Child and Adolescent Mental Health: a guide for healthcare professionals, says that behavioural disorders have doubled in the last thirty years, with 70,000 children affected severely enough to warrant treatment.

This is worrying for the children, their families, their class-mates, their teachers and their neighbourhoods. They can disrupt classes, make life misery for other children as bullies, drive parents to distraction, cause havoc on housing estates and cost the community a fortune.

It is also worrying, though, because childhood problems are liable to re-emerge in other forms in adulthood if they are not dealt with properly. A child who is naughty when he is nine may well be an offender at nineteen, seriously into drugs at twenty-nine, and unemployable and depressed at thirty-nine. The diagnoses and labels change, but the individuals involved often have multiple problems that continue to make their lives miserable and continue to have a damaging impact on those around them, as victims of their crime or hurt in the damaging relationships which they form.

We are often reluctant to conclude that children have mental health problems for fear of labelling them when what they are showing is typical adolescent rebellion. However, we do need to address problems early, both for the sake of the children and of everyone else whom they will affect in later life.

Storm in a Teacup

An Ofsted study looked at 58 schools and found confusion as to who was conducting Criminal Records Bureau checks. This led to headlines in the media and the Education Secretary had to make an emergency statement in the Commons. These systems need to be got right and the guidance (for which the Department for Education and Skills was criticised) needs to be clear, but we doubt whether this is the sort of emergency which warrants Commons statements and a lot of hoo-ha in the papers. Because we are human, systems are riddled with mistakes. They need to be checked and the systems need to be corrected when they go wrong, but that’s all part of management. Let them get on with it. There are bigger problems that are of real concern.

Tantrums, Tears and Tragedies

Valerie Jackson’s contribution this month shows how “The Child is Father of the Man”. Learn how to cope with problem-solving as a child and you will cope better as an adult. It makes obvious good sense, but has anyone ever counted the cost of failure on the part of parents?

How many politicians, generals and other important people have had disastrous impacts on history, affecting the lives of millions of others, because of their early childhood experiences and weaknesses in the way in which their parents brought them up? All too often it can be seen retrospectively that the most harmful people when in power as adults were themselves damaged as children. Bin Laden is perhaps the most recent classic case, but it has been suggested that the terrible civil war in Yugoslavia was caused by politicians who had suffered as children during the Second World War.

If so, the obvious moral is : what are we storing up now for the future in the way we are bringing up children in countries torn by war, oppressed by economic exploitation or undermined by HIV/AIDS?

Plus Ça Change

The lack of proper planning for children being admitted to children’s homes is Ian Milligan’s theme this month, reporting on a piece of research which shows how decisions are made at the last moment. This is not a new problem. We came across it in the 1970s, and our solution, from a Residential Services viewpoint, was to put a block on all unplanned admissions.

It caused an instantaneous flurry of reactions by field work colleagues, and then a protocol was worked out. The result was better preliminary thinking, a more considered use of provision, children who were better prepared for entering a home, better matching of children to homes, better information about children for residential staff, and much less hassle for them. We can’t think of a downside to the change.

The problem is not that some brand-new edict needs to emerge. It is simply a matter of applying good standard practice. There is always the risk of drifting towards sloppy practices, and good workers and agencies discipline themselves to stop it.

And by the way, if there was a real emergency, we still did admit children, but by far the majority of children needing residential care had been known to the Department for years.

Did You See? …..

….. the piece in the Guardian in which Malorie Blackman asked why it was still so hard for black and ethnic minority children to find reflections of themselves in books (20 June, Supplement, pp. 1-2)? She herself had written about other issues first before addressing race in her trilogy, Noughts and Crosses. It is an issue raised also in the journal Race Awareness Teaching, which we review in this issue.

One answer is that a lot of characters in books could be any colour or race. If you have not yet read On the New Jersey Shore, try it for this point. Very atmospheric.

There are lots of groups in the community who are not well represented. If writing is to avoid the label of discrimination, (and in this case of general racism), it needs a scatter of characters from all backgrounds – ethnic, class, religious, cultural and so on – and it needs to avoid type-casting. But if writers are to tell the truth, they do also need to reflect the differences between the groups as well and the diversity of the community at large.

From the Case Files

The catering was an “add-hock” arrangement.

Every dish had a dash of wine in it?

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