How the child-abuse gestapo turned my son’s play into a drama
23:53 GMT, 4 April 2012
23:53 GMT, 4 April 2012
Towards the end of last year my nine-year old son, Monty, landed the lead role in Oliver! at our local amateur dramatic society and the news had me bursting with maternal pride.
Even though I suspected that his floppy blond hair and deceptively innocent face had probably nailed the part, rather than any discerning acting ability,
I was still thrilled he was chosen ahead of dozens of other boys. I was expecting weeks of gruelling rehearsals, late nights and costume-making — everything that goes with the slightly eccentric world of a village amateur dramatic group. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Supporting role: Shona with Monty, who is playing Oliver in a local am dram play
What I couldn’t predict was the petty, politically correct and ridiculous tangle of town hall bureaucracy that comes with staging a production featuring children. All the mothers of kids in the show were asked if they would volunteer to help backstage during the week of performances. As the production had taken over all our lives, I didn’t hesitate to agree. I felt — after months of commitment — I wanted to be there for Monty.
Anyhow, how difficult could helping backstage be I imagined we’d have to keep an eye on the boys in their dressing room, escort them to the loo, and stop them eating too many Haribos. Easy-peasy. I expected to be subjected to a CRB (criminal record) check and was happy to consent. As a mother of four, I think it’s right that anyone working with children should have their background looked into.
But what followed was a catalogue of lengthy form-filling and hoop-jumping at the hands of my over-zealous county council. I’d been warned I would have to obtain a ‘chaperone licence’. No matter that I was doing this voluntarily, and for only three out of six performances. Legislation dictates that any children in a public performance — professional or not — must be safeguarded by approved ‘matrons’, one for every 12 children.
As a mother of four, Shona does think it's right that anyone working with children should have their background looked into (stock picture)
First, came the form filling. What experience had I to supervise a group of boys for two hours Er, motherhood. Could I provide two references for my suitability as a chaperone And the clincher. Could I confirm my availability to attend two two-and-a-half-hour evening training sessions All this I agreed to, even though it was starting to feel a little like Mr Bumble’s workhouse. Except ‘more’ was the last thing I wanted.
I turned up at the first lecture expecting advice on fire drills and dressing room etiquette. Instead, I was handed an enormous pile of paperwork with a brochure entitled: ‘Children in entertainment — recognising child abuse.’
This session was conducted by an earnest woman from the local authority child employment unit. She told us ‘amateur dramatic groups are a magnet for paedophiles’, and that the abuse of children is ‘not rare’.
She then told us almost one in seven children experiences sexual abuse in childhood. Statistically, this meant of the 20 or so children appearing in our production of Oliver!, three of them would have been abused. Now, I don’t want to belittle an extremely serious issue, but this scaremongering felt over-the-top for an amateur production when the only chaperones were mothers of the boys.
Next was role-playing. ‘What would you do if you saw a six-year-old in the dressing room attempting to hide a cigarette burn on his arm’ Or: ‘What would you do if you saw a male adult member of the cast stroking the hair of a 14-year-old girl he wasn’t related to’
Four million Criminal Records Bureau checks are made each year, a million of them on volunteers for local groups
By the time I got home, well after 10pm, I felt emotionally drained and more than a little paranoid about what lay ahead. The excitement of the show had been sapped out of me. Forget Fagin on stage and his hold over a troop of boy pickpockets. According to Surrey County Council this was nothing compared with what I might see in the dressing rooms.
And I felt we were being asked to spy for social services. We were told: ‘You are the eyes and the ears of the local authority.’ Everyone was given the mobile telephone numbers of staff in child protection which could be used any time of day or night ‘if we had any concerns’.
We were also told we were not allowed to discuss doubts or observations with other chaperones on duty at the same time. Not all local authorities follow this procedure. Some hand out matroning licences following a simple CRB and reference check, but every county council operates a different system. My home is on the border of Hampshire, Surrey and West Sussex, and if I’d lived three miles away I could have obtained the same licence with a visit to a different council’s offices.
Our next session, the following week, was a slide show of scenarios to help us unravel the seemingly endless list of rules and regulations. Did you know a 17-year-old girl is not allowed to share a dressing room with her 15-year-old sister because one is an ‘adult’ and one a ‘child’ — despite the fact they may share a bedroom at home
And a four-year-old boy is not allowed in the same dressing room as a five-year-old girl simply because they are different genders.
Surrey County Council insists this training is their ‘statutory duty’. ‘We owe it to all our children,’ I was told. But all I wanted to do was help out backstage — not embark on a career in social services.
Three weeks after my course finished, opening night saw me with no licence. For some reason it hadn’t been issued, which meant I still wasn’t allowed backstage. Instead, I was in the audience. And where Mr Bumble says: ‘The law’s an ass — an idiot’, you could hear me applauding wildly.
Towards the end of the run I received my matroning licence in the post. This allowed me backstage.
I had nine boys to chaperone — all of them far too glued to their hand-held computer games between scenes to cause any problems.
But then a woman from Surrey County Council turned up for a ‘spot check’. She went from dressing room to dressing room, until she stopped at mine. ‘Is that squash’ she said pointing to a jug I’d got for the boys. ‘Er, yes,’ I replied. ‘You have to taste it yourself before giving it to them,’ she said, officiously. ‘Health and safety.’
For the record, the boys in my care are happy and well. They weren’t abused, hurt or, indeed, poisoned by rogue jugs of squash. But if anyone asks me to help with a show again, I know where I will be — at home, glass in hand watching the TV.