News | Thursday, 26th May 2011

Paranoia endangers children in UK

Research questions sporting culture

NANNYING rules are leaving sports teachers and coaches too scared to touch the children they teach, even when their safety depends on it, according to a new research study conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University.

Dr Heather Piper, professor of education, and Dr Bill Taylor, a senior lecturer in exercise and sport science, along with Dr Dean Garratt of the University of Chester are the first to investigate the impact of the “no touch” culture in the sporting world.

Interviews carried out with 60 plus coaches around the country, in sports such as football, gymnastics and swimming, have revealed that coaches are overwhelmed with confusing rules about what constitutes “appropriate behaviour”, leaving them too scared to have any physical contact with their pupils.

They are afraid of breaching child protection policy and guidelines or being investigated for assault or abuse and in many cases coaches are safeguarding their own reputations ahead of those of the children they teach.

Covering your back

One sailing instructor interviewed during the study described his reaction when a child was left struggling in the water: “You can’t just grab them and pull them into the boat.” Instead, he tried to hold the child by a buoyancy aid, avoiding direct contact. “It’s my safety before theirs…it’s just covering your own back,” he said.

There is no national legislation that imposes a “no touch” rule on coaches but on a local level, many sports clubs have chosen to implement them anyway.

Professor Piper and her colleagues identify a “moral panic” that has developed in the sports world in the UK over the last decade, prompted by high-profile cases such as Paul Hickson, the Olympic swimming coach who was prosecuted for child abuse and rape in the early 1990s.

Coaches and sports centres have begun to police their own behaviour in an atmosphere where touching a child in any context can be construed as sexual and untrustworthy.

It's a 'bear pit'

Nigel Deeley, a coach at Manchester Metropolitan University’s football academy for teenagers, operates a strict no-touch when coaching rule. If a coach must move a child he does so by placing a hand on their head, he says, while injured teenagers are given an ice pack to apply themselves to avoid any accusations of impropriety.

He describes the experience of coaching young people today as a: “bear pit; one wrong move and you’ve got someone on your case, it can be blown out of all proportion.”

There are over a million sports coaches in the UK, nearly 70% are volunteers. Each sport has its own governing body and its own code of conduct but these are often vague and open to interpretation

Coaches must also undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks and the vetting and barring scheme, which are currently being reviewed. One police investigation or warning can harm their chances of finding a new teaching job.

Litigation fears

Although the Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 do not mention touching, sports bodies are “ratcheting everything up because of worries about litigation”, says Professor Piper.

The Amateur Swimming Association guidelines require teachers to keep their hands above the water where they can be seen at all times. A swimming pool manager interviewed for the survey worked with a young coach who had dropped his hands below the water-level during a class while teaching. He was seen by a watching parent who was also a police officer and was reported. The coach was investigated and cleared of wrongdoing but he was issued with a warning for breaking the rule. This now shows up on his Criminal Records bureau check and has prevented him from getting another job in teaching.

The study, which is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will be completed in October and published later this year.

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