Excuse Abuse – Racism, child abuse and the culture blame game

Adolf Hitler saliendo de la sede del partido Nazi (Munich, 1931)

Mein Kultur

COMMENT – I had occasion to complain to the BBC last week.  Now that I’m in my early 50s, I’ve reached the age where I actually complain, rather than just banging on at innocent bystanders before settling into a long, slow, bitter simmer, much like my mother’s Christmas sprouts.  I was allowing myself my customary ten minutes of the BBC Breakfast programme – because ten minutes is about all I can stand of its usual mix of news-lite and musical items by people I’ve never heard of – when the writer Michael Morpurgo appeared, talking about his new book ‘A medal for Leroy’.  The book is based on the experiences of real-life war hero Walter Tull, who was the first black man to be an officer in the British Army and the first to play as a professional football outfielder.  Morpurgo described the racism to which Tull was subjected, whereupon Charlie Stayt – whom I’ve usually found to be less objectionable as a presenter than some others – remarked “In a way it was not racism, it was just the way it was then.”

I’ve had my reply from the BBC and I fully intend to write back, since their answer was not only evasive rubbish, it contained a number of spelling mistakes and I’m nothing if not ferociously pedantic on such matters.  I shall ask if we can expect to hear the holocaust referred to as ‘Not really anti-semitic genocide – it was just the way things were in 30s and 40s Germany.’

In the wake of the Director General’s lukewarm performance at the Commons Select Committee, during which he said that it was “culture and practices of the BBC”  that allowed Jimmy Savile to do what he did, I found myself wondering if ‘culture’ was the standard BBC excuse for failing to keep acceptable standards of behaviour.  After all, the response I got from the BBC to my complaint about Charlie Stayt’s appalling comment said “What Charlie meant here was that treating people differently because of the colour of their skin or culture was embedded in society at that time; it was just a way of life, the automatic reaction for someone who encountered an individual from a different race. Some people adopted this approach daily without considering it to be the ‘racism’ we all know as being still prevalent in society today.”

This, remember, is the BBC explaining away – not apologising for – an ill-judged, thoughtless and offensive comment on the grounds that ‘Everyone was doing it.’ If they’d said ‘Charlie regrets his poorly thought out comment, which implied that racism isn’t racism if most people are doing it’ I’d have been satisfied.  I only hope they never put him in charge of a documentary about apartheid in South Africa.

Prevailing ‘culture’ does seem to be the excuse du jour, however.  You only have to look at the awful scandal of girls being groomed by Asian men in Rochdale and elsewhere to see that different aspects of ‘culture’ came together to prevent these girls’ cries for help being properly heard – or for the much-vaunted ‘safeguarding’ policies and practice to mean anything more than print on paper.  You have to remember that this abuse of young and vulnerable teenage girls was going on whilst schools, social services and other relevant agencies were going through the most costly, time-consuming and comprehensive revamping ever of child protection policy and practice, ‘Every Child Matters.’  I know how much time was spent on it in Rochdale, because I was a head teacher there at the time.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I read in the Guardian of 8th November an article by Liz Davies describing how this extremely extensive and expensive overhaul of child protection had, ironically, reduced the effectiveness of child protection measures.  Davies describes how “specialist teams, which had developed highly refined skills in the investigation of abuse and investigative interviewing of children and survivors, were lost through restructuring of services into a response to children in need in a far more general sense and the word safeguarding replaced the word protection in much government guidance.”

Talking today to a friend who still works in a school, we remembered how ‘Every Child Matters’ swamped all that we did as school leaders and teachers.  We recalled that we were reminded constantly that Ofsted inspectors would want to see that the five ‘strands’ or outcomes of ECM – Stay Safe, Be Healthy, Enjoy & Achieve, Economic Wellbeing and Positive Contribution – were embedded and suffused through all that happened in school.  It doesn’t take a lot of brains to see that what set out to be a means of involving everyone in protecting children from harm turned in actuality into a well-meaning, middle class statement of ‘What every child should have’ – which is cruelly laughable to the child suffering chronic neglect or abuse, to whom getting involved in the school council, eating ‘five a day’ or learning about how to get a mortgage is the least of their worries. Nonetheless, teachers had their time swallowed up desperately trying to show how all five ECM outcomes were affecting their teaching and the children’s learning, which resulted in some very creative thinking when, for example, the PE staff tried to crowbar Economic Wellbeing into their lessons.

A major plank of ECM was meant to be its joined-upness, in that all relevant agencies working with a child were meant to talk to each other, as it had been observed that in the past, children had suffered because salient facts known by one agency were not passed to another.  I mention this because it was a couple of years into the expensive training that had been given to all agencies that I discovered to my shock that a child at my school had attempted suicide and none of the agencies subsequently involved with her had thought to let her school know how distressed and vulnerable she was.  Anyone who thinks this might perhaps be an isolated case needs only to talk to any headteacher, because they all have a series of similar  stories.  One that I know tells of how social services refuse to tell her why they are involved with a particular family whose obviously disturbed children attend her school on the grounds that the parents have told them they ‘don’t trust her.’

If anyone thinks this is bad enough, they should go over and read Liz Davies’ article.  She goes on to explain how the child protection register was abolished in 2008, meaning that those children most at risk were lost in the melee as social service workers in particular were swamped by data and bureaucracy.  The gathering and growing avalanche of reports of abuse and systematic grooming by groups of adults as well as prolific individuals was surely predictable.

In the end, it boils down to the fact that you cannot protect children by creating policies which only place additional responsibilities upon already over-burdened agencies and professionals.  Nor will we even scratch the surface of abuse and neglect until we accept that we do need to place children in care to protect them, but we need urgently to examine the nature of that care, the threshold for making the decision to place a child in care – and until we make a real profession of those carers, rather than hoping that those who come forward to foster are not only well-meaning, but possess the skills required to care for and nurture the most vulnerable of children.  We need to put sufficient resources into training these carers and into making their job worthwhile.

Here’s an idea – rather than identifying a few graduates with ‘good degrees’ and encouraging them to go into social work for a bit, rather than training hordes of graduates to be teachers and then letting them languish on the dole, why not examine the possibility of training these people as ‘professional parents’?

I can hear politicians now – ‘We can’t put more money into such things, we can’t afford it, blah blah.’  But here’s the thing – given the scale of neglect, abuse and poor parenting afflicting so many children these days and the impact on those children’s whole lives  – how can we afford not to?

I wonder if in years to come, the scandal of our inability to devise simple, easy to follow procedures for recognising and dealing abuse and neglect of children will be the subject of head-scratching bemusement by our wiser and more pro-active descendants.  I know that I can’t imagine television presenters simply excusing that by saying ‘It wasn’t abuse – it was just the way things were then.’

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. Helen, you got more from the BBC than I ever have. At least they made SOME attempt to responding to your concern.

    And don’t forget how all the Council Education Chiefs became Chief Executives of Education AND Children Welfare (or whatever title they took) with huge pay increases but reduced effectiveness of services as you so rightly point out.

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