19 Jul 2009

CRB checks, and what is really precious...

I disagree with Michael Morpurgo’s viewpoint about enhanced CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks for writers/poets/artists who work in schools, being 'insulting'. I think that being famous has nothing to do with anything on this matter (remember Gary Glitter?)

I do not doubt that Michael Morpurgo’s response is that of a good man, shocked by his close encounter with a painful reality. But people who want to hurt children are cunning and devious, and children’s needs are paramount and sacrosanct.

I occasionally visit schools as a poet/writer: sometimes performing, reading, collaborating or teaching, and usually with a class of around 30 and with at least 2 adults. I am not in the slightest bit insulted by CRB checks. The £64 is a bit pricey for any impoverished artist, but it is a legitimate, tax-deductable business expense, so never mind.

Even with strongly held anti-ID card, specific anti-establishment views, I do not oppose being ‘checked out’ for this work. The process isn’t about me, me, me, and the offence it may be to the wonderfulness of my work. It is about the children.

Schools, which are an environment primarily for children, function best when there is a relaxed as well as secure atmosphere. As a parent, I would challenge a school’s ability to care for my children if it did not provide either of these qualities, or both in good balance. This means that staff should not have to work in an environment where they are expected to worry about, or act with reckless habitual nonchalance towards people from outside the school coming into it.

Recently, when I arrived in the foyer of a school where I was to spend the day writing and recording sea-shore poems, the teacher who greeted me was suddenly diverted by a safety/discipline issue with other children. Consequently, a small girl was instructed to lead me up two narrow flights of stairs to the classroom, before I encountered another adult.

With another group, working on Dartmoor, I enjoyed being alone with 5 children for a few minutes, to write about our observations: green beetles, blue-black feathers, far skylines and the sound of skylarks and stone-chats.

On another occasion - a woodland walk - I responded with a mother’s instinct rather than a poet’s voice and quickly lifted a distressed girl from the large, gravelled puddle into which she had just stumbled, face-first.

I have been sent to choose the stationery I required for making poetry books, from a cupboard in another part of the school, and passed a child reading unattended in the corridor.

None of the staff in any of these schools would have allowed these ordinary events to happen if I was not so thoroughly cleared by the Home Office every 3 years. Without CRB checks, any visitor would have to have a constant chaperone, or the school would be violating their duty of care and potentially be placing children at risk.

If I was the parent of any of the above described children, I would be relieved to know that the visiting writer had had a thorough CRB check. Especially if that child had already been assaulted and was re-learning boundaries; or if that parent, assaulted as a child, was learning to let go and heal their own past.
These frailties are too common, too important to overlook in favour of the naïvety or vain preciousness of artists – no matter how reputedly brilliant, saintly or famous.