Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 15:46 UK

Why teachers shun pupil contact

Pupils in school
Many teachers are afraid to touch children at all for fear of recriminations

Following the trial of head teacher David Thorley, who was convicted of nine charges of the sexual touching of pupils, BBC Wales education correspondent Colette Hume looks at the challenges facing teachers over physical contact with young pupils.

Picture the scenario: a six-year-old girl is playing a game with her school friends, she runs across the playground, falls and cuts her knee and cries. What's your reaction?

Well it's obvious - to help her and comfort her, perhaps put a reassuring arm around her shoulders and wipe her tears away.

But if you're her teacher, would you do the same thing? It's something I've frequently asked teachers, and their response to that scenario is always the same - a firm "no."

It sounds at best, steely and cold - at worst, heartless, but teachers and indeed all those who work with children are increasingly aware that what seems to be the most normal and natural response to a distressed child could have serious implications for their career and their reputation.

John Tobutt has been a teacher and head teacher for more than 30 years. He's now the head of Gabalfa Primary School in Cardiff and a father and grandfather.

When I asked him that same question, this was his response.

Head teacher John Tobutt says that the position of male teachers in schools is increasingly vulnerable

"I would try my hardest not to, but I'm human. The real issue is if a female teacher did that, it would be deemed to be appropriate; if a male teacher did that, perhaps it would be deemed not appropriate and that's a real dilemma," he said.

"I certainly would do it with my own children, my own grandchildren - and that's really the dilemma today for society - why as a professional, if a young child needs care, if a young child needs comfort, why shouldn't I be allowed to do that?"

The answer is that as teachers are increasingly concerned by the problems that could be caused by any kind of physical contact, they're withdrawing from the children.

The most I would do these days is sit next to an upset child - that's it and I'd never ever allow myself to be in a classroom or anywhere else alone with a child
Female teacher

One female teacher told me she found it heartbreaking that she could no longer offer comfort to a distressed child for fear that it could result in some kind of action against her.

"The most I would do these days is sit next to an upset child - that's it," she said, "and I'd never ever allow myself to be in a classroom or anywhere else alone with a child."

Teachers say they have detected a change in society's response to men working with children - especially the youngest children.

A cursory glance shows the number of male teachers registered with the General Teaching Council here in Wales is showing a small but steady decline.

Upset boy
Teachers are reluctant to comfort upset children

The latest figures show that men now make up 25.6% of registered teachers - there are nearly 29,000 registered women teachers compared with just 9,935 men.

Admittedly the profession has always been dominated by women, but there's now real concern that if the trend continues it could have real consequences for boys' education, and their access to positive male role models.

Child protection

John Tobutt explained: "It's vital, absolutely vital for young people to have those role models - be they teachers, neighbours, footballs stars, pop stars, it is so important that they have a balance between male and female.

"The sadness, the worry for society has to be that education and especially education of the youngest children is seen to be something which is associated with females.

"The result of that is that boys can actually switch off from schooling, from education because they see it as something which is not associated with men and males, and I think that's a great shame.

"There's a whole range of statistics which is available to actually show that girls are still outperforming boys right across the board.

"I'm not saying that this is the main reason but clearly it's a significant contributor to why boys are not achieving as well as they should be."

So what's the advice from the Welsh Assembly Government? Should teachers ever touch children - is a reassuring hand on the shoulder acceptable or should they always step back.

In a statement, it says schools have a statutory duty to exercise their functions with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of their pupils.

They should have policies and procedures in place including designating a senior member of staff with responsibility for child protection.

These responsibilities are clearly set out in the Welsh Assembly Government's 'Safeguarding Children in Education: the role of local authorities and governing bodies under the Education Act 2002' guidance which was published in April 2008.

Certainly in many schools across the country, teachers are now leaving children to cry alone. They say they're not heartless or unfeeling - but afraid of what a simple human reaction to distress could mean for their careers.

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