The CRB system was set up in the wake of the Soham murders, committed by Ian Huntley. Huntley had been able to get a job at a school despite some previous by using his mother’s maiden name. The CRB system checks, amongst other things, that you have always been who you say you are. Therefore it could probably catch another Ian Huntley. It couldn’t catch, say, another Gary Glitter, who was only found out when an engineer at PC World found pictures on the computer he had taken in for repairs. Muppet.
It certainly wouldn’t and couldn’t catch the family members or long-standing acquaintances of children who are the most likely to commit any form of abuse. But still, the grasp of the CRB spreads and spreads, instilling a sense of false bureaucratic security in the brains of politicians and tabloids but absolutely no one else, and now it has reached the realm of famous authors.
Fortunately things aren’t quite as bad as they’re being painted. Yes, authors who visit schools more than once a month will have to apply for a CRB (and representatives of other trades too, presumably, but authors are a large subset of the whole). And yes, that does include people like Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Anthony Horowitz, Quentin Blake … And yes, it costs £64 to prove they’re not paedophiles. BUT, in the case of authors, that will be apparently be paid for anyway, and those of us who visit schools less than once a month won’t be required to register. (This assumes the teachers in charge of visits to be fully au fait with the regulations and not insist on CRBs for everyone, regardless, which is by no means a given.) So the situation hasn’t really changed. That much.
It remains utterly ludicrous, as Mr Pullman points out: in 20 years of visiting schools, he has never been left alone with kids. Ever. But the logic of applying the rule to the once-a-month-or-more brigade is precisely that: prolonged and repeated exposure allegedly increases the chances of grooming the kids for Unspeakable Acts. How you do this when faced with a baying mob of 50 year 9s and 10s, I have no idea. I doubt anyone does. But that’s the roolz.
Once, on a school visit, I was asked to wait in the staff room for a while, and then a single solitary boy, aged 13ish, was sent to get me when everyone was ready. So I suppose I was technically alone with a child, for about 5 seconds. The staff room had a glass wall looking onto a main corridor, but still I suppose that if I was a really, really determined, cunning and persuasive paedo – and if the young man was brain dead, dumb and physically handicapped – then I could have got lucky. We really are pushing the bounds of probability here.
Some further reading on the subject:
- A handy lesson on false positives. Take home statistic: you are scanning 3000 people with a system that gets it 90% right. One person fails the test. How likely is he to be guilty? Answer: 0.3%.
- Charlie Stross on why he doesn’t intend ever to apply for a CRB – not that he does school talks anyway, and not that he would need because of the less-than-monthly rule.
- Juliet McKenna gently poking at the flaws in the system.
Any politician who tries to rationalise the system will inevitably provoke hysterical screams of wrath from the red-tops, and be labelled as soft on crime by the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. So, cross-party action – which is would be needed to change anything – is unlikely if it’s a single party issue. The hysteria could however be toughed out by the next Prime Minister and the next Labour leader (highly unlikely to be the same person) working together. The former will be a product of a system that can actually understand the non-tangible benefits of authors visiting schools. The latter should welcome the chance to distance himself from the triumphs of his predecessors’ reigns. It could work.
Meanwhile Pullman et al will have to decide what matters more to them – the grind and, yes, the insult of being required to register, or the thought of the kids who would greatly value their visits being deprived of same. And Anthony Horowitz has nothing to fear: the CRB form is extremely unlikely to have a question saying “Are you now or have you ever been the perpetrator of Crime Traveller” so his secret is safe.