This morning I drove down to the local public school, where I spent a delightful hour listening to year 1 and 2 students practice their reading. This is my second year of this fortnightly ritual. I sit just outside the classroom window on a big chair, and the littlies come out one at a time to sit beside me on a small chair, reading their books or flash cards. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. They’re each of them determined and focused; they relish their stories and love showing off their ability to read. While one swoops off and another comes sidling out, I catch glimpses of what’s happening in the classroom. In cooler weather we sit in the sun and put on our jackets, but at the moment, in late summer, we do our work in the building’s shade.
There’s only the tiniest problem about it all, and that’s this 4-page form sitting on the desk beside me. Up until today it’s been lurking deep in the pile on my desk, but I’ve been reminded by the school secretary that I must complete it each year, so now it looms at my elbow.
Here’s how the form goes:
Page 1 asks for my name, address and date of birth.
Page 2 starts to get more exciting. It wants me to know that it is an offence for a disqualified person as defined in section 18 of the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012 to be completing this form. If I have been involved in the murder of a child, or causing grievous bodily harm, or attempted rape, or incest or kidnapping or a whole page of other stuff I don’t even like reading about, then I am not welcome to apply.
Pages 3 and 4 continue the severe and lawyerly tone, dealing with proof of identity. I’m informed of how many points I need, and of all the categories in which I can get points, and how many points I get for each item. The exception to all this point-gathering, I am told, is if I am Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in a remote area/community, and if my identity is verified by two persons recognised as “Community Leaders”. This clause strikes me as being quite sensible, though I’m not sure why it applies only to Aboriginals and not to me.
It’s not that I don’t understand what the issue is. If I needed reminding, it was all over the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald today: “Disturbing claims of abuse heard at Royal Commission into Knox Grammar School”. A past teacher at an elite Sydney school has been charged with some pretty nasty behaviour.
If only Knox Grammar School had used this 4-page form all their trouble could have been prevented. (Pardon the dripping sarcasm.) Clearly, what with rogue teachers, priests and boarding school caretakers, children do need protecting, but I reckon this form is no part of the solution. To the contrary, it represents a good deal of what’s wrong with the world today.
Start with the waste of time, money and energy. Fancy the hours that were spent compiling that document; imagine the layers of public servants who created and read and proofed it, and the lawyers who went through it to make it insurance-claim proof. The invested time didn’t end there. At my little local school, tight on budget with an over-worked staff, somebody has to distribute the forms, chase them up, file them away, throw them out. Would-be volunteers have to put in an hour or so of time wading through irrelevant information and digging up documents.
Worse, it gives a false sense of security. Somewhere up the food chain bureaucrats can say they’ve done all they could do—and hope that they’ll be able to stay out of the news if the proverbial hits the fan. (False hope, amigos. The media will get you no matter how many reams of paper you barricade yourself in with.) Neither the bureaucrats, nor the staff at school, nor the children are protected in the slightest.
The problem is that common sense has been abandoned. If we lose our common sense—our personal sense of responsibility—we have no anchor, no guideposts, no markers in the channel. Common sense says that a woman of A Certain Age, sitting in plain view just outside the classroom window, someone who is part of the community and known favourably to many people therein, is not likely to be a threat to children. Common sense says potential volunteers will be put off by the 4-page form. Common sense says the young boys at Knox Grammar, or these little Mitchells Island children, would not be protected by any form.
Common sense says that for children to be safe, the adults around them have to be committed to their well-being and their safety. And I can assure you that that is the case at Mitchells Island Public School. If any reading volunteer so much as raised an eyebrow at one of the children, their vigilant teacher would be out that door in seconds. It likely hasn’t crossed her mind that the 4-page form provides her with any certainty or gives her reason to abdicate her vigilance.
—All of which should help explain why the offending document has been unattended on my desk. It’s become a question of conscience. On the one hand, I think of the service I am providing for the littlies of Mitchells Island, and the pleasure I get from that. On the other hand is the ignorance represented by this form, and whether I can afford to ignore the issue.
But enough agonising. The children, with their shy smiles and faces uncluttered by any of the dilemmas I chew over, represent the here and now—the tangible reality of what’s possible in community. The murky mindset that thinks a 4-page form will solve a problem is only a concept. And I can’t work out how to stage a meaningful protest without throwing out the babies with the bathwater. So I’ll sign.
Last night at choir, we learned, in four parts, a poignant song protesting the holding of children in immigrant detention centres. The song evoked “prison wire and terrified kids”, and when combined with the harmonies it was enough to bring tears to my eyes.
Now that’s a worthy problem for a community to tackle.