BBC Breakfast News was running a morning’s ‘have your say’ last Sunday regarding the appropriateness or otherwise of teachers touching pupils. Views ranged from some arguing that not touching children was a form of abuse, to those arguing that any touch was to be averted for fear of reprisals.
Fear is the operative word here. People are doing or not doing things out of fear, things that have been entirely natural throughout the history of social relationships. Common sense has disappeared.
A few years ago, several schools in Liverpool adopted a project known as peer massage, where young children are taught about appropriate and safe touching and how it can help calm and relax. Focused on the shoulders and back, children also learn how to do this on each other, always asking permission beforehand. Although it is rather manufactured, it works, and is a strong statement of belief from school leaders regarding the pro-active nature of child protection.
The cajoling arm around the shoulder, the encouraging pat on the back, the playful ruffling of the hair – all these are entirely appropriate within a trusting teacher/pupil relationship. More than appropriate, they establish a connection which give that pupil a greater sense of identity and self-worth.
Now in Sierra Leone, I was taken with comments which suggest people have grown out of the natural touching habits because of the Ebola crisis. During that time, it became forbidden to touch others due to the lethal contagiousness of the disease. It is taking some time for the old habits to return – this in a country where touch is as strong a sense as sight.
Like all things surrounding child protection, strong leadership which provides a culture of shared responsibility is the best way forward, and this extends to touch. It is right when it is right, and it is wrong when it is wrong. School leaders should have the confidence to know the difference and not give way to a fear of public commentary.