Thursday, 25 March 2010

Stuck up a tree

File under "health and safety gone mad"?

A five year old boy was stuck in a tree in his school playground, "at least six feet off the ground". Staff did nothing to get him down, but instead followed their policy, which was "to observe the situation from a distance so the child does not get distracted and fall" - according to the headmistress, as quoted by the Daily Mail. The boy remained in the tree for up to half an hour, until he was eventually rescued by local mother Kim Barrett, who just happened to be passing by. Instead of thanking her for coming to the aid of a distressed child, the headmistress accused her of trespassing, banned her from the school grounds for life, and reported her to the local police, who - to Ms Barrett's astonishment - came round to visit her. A PCSO informed her that "she had committed a trespassing offence by helping the young schoolboy down from the tree."

Ms Barrett, for her part, told the reporter that she was angry and upset at being treated like a criminal or a potential paedophile, when she was merely doing what any decent person would have done.

As such stories tend to do, this one struck a chord, attracting more than 600 comments on the Mail's Website. Most were along these lines (from IY in Northhants):

Whilst the school felt that may not have been able to get the child down leaving him up the tree where he may have fallen to his death was not actions of reasonable adult just a bunch of pc brainwashed stooges.

Show me one normal human being who would have not got agitated with the school and their life threaten approach to a children safety and welfare. Most normal people would have more than 'approached the school in an inappropriate way'.

The sending of a plastic pod to caution Miss again confirms that the police have lost complete direction as to there job in society and the Chief Constable owes Miss Barrett an apology.

Yet another example of how far we have sunk under Liebore.

A number of bloggers (notably Julia M) spotted the story too.

The story pricks a number of sensitive points on the body politic. There's the health-and-safety-gone-mad angle, teachers sticking bone-headedly to rules dreamed up by a remote committee in the name of protecting children, even when the effect is to expose a child to danger. There's officialdom's suspicion and disapproval of members of the community acting on their own initiative and with altruistic motives. There's the way in which paranoia about lurking paedophiles has turned schools into day-prisons for children (Barrett had to climb over a locked gate to get to the distressed boy). There's the officious "just-doing-my-job" pseudo police officer following up an absurd complaint. Most enraging of all, perhaps, is the self righteous bureaucratic nannyspeak of the headmistress's attempt to defend the indefensible.

Yes, but is it true? I've been at this game long enough to realise you can't trust newspaper reports of anything, and stories like this tend to get improved in the retelling. The school concerned, the Manor C of E School in Melksham, Wiltshire, has a website, and which offers a markedly different - indeed, utterly irreconcilable - take on the story. In a letter, headmistress Beverley Martin thanks parents for "your many messages of support and your very obvious disbelief", describes the story - based on an incident that occurred three weeks ago - as "untrue", and laments that it has become "more and more sensationalised online".

These are the facts, according to Ms Martin.

1) At 11.05 am, at the end of playtime, the boy "wanted to stay out and ran up to one of the trees". A separate break-time began ten minutes later. In the intervening period, Ms Barrett was "observed ...entering the vehicular gate and turning across the private staff car park rather than walking to reception."

2) The boy was monitored by staff the whole time. (Ms Barrett, by contrast, claims that "when I took him in they had no idea he was missing".)

3) The boy "had been sitting and then swinging on the bottom branch of the tree and was in no way stuck and was not distressed." (This contrasts with Kim Barrett's recollection that the boy was six feet in the air.)

4) When Kim Barrett found the boy, he "was standing on the path, having exited the tree".

5) "The child was reluctant to talk to her and walk with her." (Again, flatly contrary to Barrett's statement.)

6) When challenged by a teacher, Barrett "became verbally aggressive and exited by climbing back over the locked gateway."

The letter concludes with a statement, supposedly from the boy's mother but which reads (to me at least) as though part of it has been dictated by the school:

I am amazed at the gullibility of the press and some of the general public. My child was never stuck in a tree and was very unhappy about a stranger approaching him in his school. I appreciate that the woman may have thought that she was doing the right thing, but there are proper procedures to follow and she shouldn’t walk past classrooms and staff to get at a child. The staff were doing their job and were fully aware that my son was there. They were also aware that a stranger was approaching him. They intercepted her to ensure there was no possibility of my son being removed from the premises. All I can say is thank God the staff behaved in the manner they did. I don’t know what the lady’s intentions were but I am really glad that I didn’t have to wait to find out. I fully support the actions of the school both before the incident and since.

Ms Martin concludes with the words "Please now make up your own minds."

So who do you believe? The boy's mother, of course, was not there at the time; nor, I gather, was the headmistress. If the school's description of the facts is accurate, Kim Barrett's actions seem bizarre, almost inexplicable; yet by all accounts she is a perfectly normal woman of 38 with children of her own. The police, having made their inquiries, did not see the need to take any further action. Neither account is wholly satisfactory. Barrett's claim that the boy had been stuck in the tree for 45 minutes would seem to be an exaggeration: it was more like ten. On the other hand, if the child was not up the tree, but merely sitting on a low-hanging branch which he was able to leave quite easily of his own accord, it has to be wondered why he was allowed to remain there for ten minutes after the end of playtime. The explanation that "he wanted to stay out", if true, says little for the school's approach to discipline or its perception of the importance of lessons.

On balance, I would say that Kim Barrett's account has a greater air of authenticity, though she may well be exaggerating (or, more likely, have misperceived) the danger the boy was in. Clearly she did not have permission to enter the school grounds. But equally clearly her prime concern was the welfare of the child, and her anger at being accused of trespassing is entirely understandable. An intelligent teacher in possession of common sense should have been able to defuse the situation and reassure both Ms Barrett and the boy, and would certainly not have involved the police. But then such a teacher wouldn't have allowed him to sit on his own in a tree while the rest of the school was in class.

In her anxiety to defend the school's policy and deflect unwelcome headlines, Beverley Martin has made a number of increasingly serious allegations against Kim Barrett. She appears unwilling to concede even that the passer-by had good intentions. That is perhaps the most depressing thing of all.