We should call time on the UK’s perverted and counterproductive approach to child protection

(Guest post by Alex Tabor). After living in Belgium for 11 years, our family decided to move back to England in the summer of 2022. I was looking forward to bringing back my two small children who were born in Belgium and went through the Belgian nursery and kindergarten system.

However, it did not take long before reality bit and I was immediately confronted with England’s warped and unhealthy approach to child safety.

See if you can guess the place I’m about to describe. My wife and children arrive at the gates and before entering I had to produce ID. Then, before entering the (empty) building, we subsequently were warned not to take any photos. Was it a high security setting perhaps, such as a government building or military site? It was actually a small kindergarten located in the safe market town of Saffron Walden in Essex. Yes, we were back in England alright!

Forward wind a few months later to my eldest daughter’s primary school. Following several requests from my eldest daughter’s class teachers for parents to come and help listen to children read, I decided I would help out for an hour on an occasional, not even weekly basis. As an HE level teacher myself, I already had a recent copy of my DBS check to hand. As a parent volunteer, its necessity was questionable in itself but then I was soon shocked to be greeted by requests for two references. Yes, the same requirements as if I were an employee! Already, the suffocating degree of distrust was very off-putting. From the outset, this approach seemed much more akin to ‘community harming’ than child safeguarding.

Furthermore, the England DBS process is itself already very burdensome since it requires two forms of ID and proof of address. In addition the waiting time is normally several weeks. Contrast this to the same process in Belgium, which involved going online with my Belgian ID card and downloading an official copy of my police record within minutes. I would expect the process to be equally rapid and painless in most other Northern European countries.

Other similar examples of alienating volunteers that I have witnessed or heard about from parents volunteering in different schools include: schools confiscating mobile phones from parents when volunteering with school trips or sports teams; parent volunteers being told not to help very young children go to the toilet if they have not been DSB checked, even when on field trips in view of others. No wonder so many parents or members of communities up and down the country have decided they won’t participate in volunteering – who would want to be treated so insultingly?

My first teaching job in England involved teaching at an international foundation college last year and I witnessed another blatant example of this heavy handed approach to safeguarding. Specifically, it involved the overzealous policing by CCTV of under-18s’ movements in their residences, whereby cameras in the kitchen and corridors were checked on a daily basis and students were reprimanded for going into the wrong kitchen. I still recall the distressed faces of those dejected international students when in class they asked for my help. This perfectly epitomises the dangers of over safeguarding and the paranoia that drives it.

Over-safeguarding also conditions children to be unnaturally afraid not least because the adults, subject to an unhealthy degree of suspicion even when volunteering, are themselves more anxious which the children in turn pick up on. This consequently makes children feel more anxious and insecure themselves, thereby disempowering them and rendering them much less able to deal confidently with situations where they may be in potential danger.

The case for calling time on the England’s perverted and counterproductive approach to child safeguarding of the last decade or so has never been more compelling. Indeed, more accurately, it should be renamed the ‘society harming’ approach. It is a shocking, unbalanced system, based on fear and paranoia which severely undermines trust both between adults themselves and between adults and children. Over safeguarding is pernicious in other ways too: in practice it is mostly not actually implemented in the best interests of the child, rather it is the cowardly avoidance of perceived risk, itself inflated due to exaggerated fear around child safety.

In conclusion, the state in England has managed to undermine spontaneous beneficial interactions between adults and children by pitting citizens against each other in situations where trust and teamwork are essential for both social cohesion and strong communities. This is exactly the approach that countries which score most highly in social cohesion and wellbeing, such as the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Southern European countries, do not adopt. At a time of shrinking educational resources and severe economic struggles the ability of communities to fully help each other is fundamental. England’s child safeguarding system succeeds spectacularly in doing the opposite.