Don’t touch those kids!

New research reveals why teachers and childcare workers now avoid putting a plaster on a child's leg - even though they know the rules are ridiculous.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Dr Heather Piper’s research at Manchester Metropolitan University into the ‘problematics of touching’ is an obvious candidate for ‘PC gone mad’ stories. Reported cases include the teacher who avoided putting a plaster on a child’s scraped leg; nursery staff calling a child’s mother every time he needed to go to the toilet; a male gym teacher leaving a girl injured in the hall while he waited for a female colleague.

Piper – whose work has been reported on spiked before (see Hands-off care for kids) – has now completed a research project for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (1). Looking at six case-study schools, Piper and her colleagues conducted interviews with teachers, parents and children on the rights and wrongs of touch.

She certainly unearthed a number of mad stories. Nursery workers wearing plastic gloves for changing nappies, even though the gloves tore on the nappies’ sticky tabs. A school sending a set of ‘touching guidelines’ to parents for consultation, including the specification that teachers wouldn’t put a plaster on a child without parents’ permission. Staff at one school keeping an account of every ‘touching incident’ (‘We write down a short account and date it and put which staff were present and at what time, we then explain it to the parent and ask them to read and sign it’), more as if they were keeping police logs than teaching children.

But the research shows that it isn’t mad PC henchmen behaving this way, but ordinary, well-meaning child professionals. Piper’s work gets inside the mentality of today’s risk culture, and captures the crazy contortions that sensible people are ending up in.

Piper tells me that the anxiety about touching children is now ‘mainstream’. ‘Even schools that said, “this isn’t a problem, we’re touchy feely” – we found that they were panicking. They were adapting their behaviour in ways of which they perhaps weren’t aware.’ In some cases, particular individuals might be okay to touch, but only to the exclusion of other teachers. Piper cites one headmaster who said ‘I’m okay, because I have 25 years of experience, but I wouldn’t trust my staff’. At another school, staff would go to matron if a child needed to be touched – if they had a bump on their head that needed checking, for example – rather than check it themselves.

The normal, everyday interactions between adults and children are being viewed as poisonous. Decent and competent child professionals end up watching each other and themselves for signs of suspicious behaviour, a situation that Piper describes as a ‘perfect panopticon’.

Why is this happening? Many teachers claim that they are just following Ofsted guidelines, saying that there is an official prohibition on touch. This just isn’t true, says Piper. Instead, no-touch policies are being worked out informally among staff members. Teachers have internalised a sense of mistrust and are policing themselves – something that one teacher described as an ‘implanted awareness’. Individuals follow regulations to absolve themselves of suspicion – one nursery teacher admitted that changing nappies with plastic gloves wasn’t practical, but ‘you’ve got to think of yourself first’. Another said that to leave the gloves off would make a dubious ‘statement’.

Teachers’ notion that all this comes from officialdom reflects their lack of ownership of policies. Professionals will steer clear of touching while knowing that it is crazy. ‘Often people will giggle about the things they have to do’, Piper tells me, ‘but they still do them’. Nobody really believes that they and their colleagues are all potential child abusers: Piper notes in her report that ‘respondents “knew” that professional abuse was extremely rare’.

Some staff realise that they are poisoning their relationship with their charges, and depriving kids of the care and attention they need. One special school, with children as young as five, generally only touched when it was strictly necessary and avoided ‘caring touching’. One manager at the school reflected: ‘when we put them to bed, are we allowed to kiss them on the top of the head? That makes me think about what a sterile environment there is – no parental familiarity of touch – does the child’s life have to be that sterile?’ A primary school headteacher lamented, ‘It’s just a shame that society is coming round to this’; another teacher asked, ‘What kind of adults are we bringing up?’.

This isn’t just about touch, says Piper – it’s about ‘all forms of behaviour’. People are unsure about what counts as appropriate or inappropriate. She cites the example of one teacher texting a pupil to tell them that a school trip bus was about to go. ‘Was this invading the pupil’s privacy? My research team had a big debate about whether this was okay or not.’ The question of whether this was ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is unrelated to the intentions of any particular teacher; the researchers weren’t suggesting that this teacher was a pervert. People view a situation as if they were an outsider assuming the worst, rather than using their own awareness of context and intention.

Summerhill school provided a kind of control for the team’s research. This chilled out, hippie school had apparently remained entirely immune from anxiety about touch, and members of staff treated Piper’s inquiries with bemusement. ‘We felt absolutely ludicrous’, she says, ‘because it just wasn’t an issue. We felt like perverts, going around asking people who touched who and why.’ While other schools became jumpy about Piper’s research, asking to remain anonymous, Summerhill couldn’t understand what the problem was.

Piper’s comment is telling, because it captures how this touchiness about touch encourages people to assume the minds of perverts. No-touch policies imply dark desires, as if were it not for the prohibitions teachers wouldn’t be able to control themselves. Every nursery worker who wears gloves is in effect admitting that there is something a bit dodgy about them. One respondent to the research noted ‘a definite hesitation and suspicion of myself’ – and more worryingly, ‘a feeling that this implanted awareness alerts any proclivity I have towards “the taboo”; that it might awaken otherwise non-existent desires. It feels like this awareness acts like a carrier of an “infection” to abuse’. It’s those who police themselves who end up feeling like perverts, rather than those who engage in unthinking and innocent touching.

Some have started to lay down clearer guidelines about ‘appropriate touch’, believing that this might clear up the confusion. This might mean allowing ‘child-initiated touch’, or consulting parents about what they believe is acceptable. But this just leads into ‘endless double binds’, says Piper. The report quotes a parent’s tortured specification: ‘I would like my child to be consulted before she is touched…. I want my child to received positive physical contact as praise, appropriate to the situation – such as ruffling hair/patting on the back – if that’s okay with her.’ Another nursery nurse wondered what counted as ‘child-initiated touch’: when they are crying?; when they are leaning on her knees?

Piper concludes that the guidelines are ‘negative rather than positive, products of fear rather than a characteristic of a confident profession or workforce’. Codes give no space for context or good professional sense, and so were generally ‘ignored or became unworkable’, creating ‘guilt at their non-compliance’. The more specific codes become, the more ridiculous they are, and the more they cast teachers under the veil of suspicion.

Instead, Piper proposes ‘a return to notions of professional trust and agency’ – a trust in teachers to do the right thing and decide upon the appropriate way to behave. The upshot of no-touch codes is not safe or ethical teacher-pupil relationships, but merely tortured agonising. This research calls on professionals to start judging for themselves how to relate to pupils, and to have more confidence in their judgements.

(1) ESRC-funded research project RES-000-22-0815, ‘Touchlines: the Problematics of Touching Between Children and Professionals’

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Topics Politics


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