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Fear and suspicion are no way to build a good society

Instead of protecting us, a rule-bound, risk-averse, box-ticking culture is making us passive and increasingly inhibited 

Jenni Russell, The Guardian, 4 February 2009

Regulation is fashionable. Applied to bankers and markets, we are freshly aware of its virtues. Yet while we have been under-regulating financiers, we have been over-regulating the social sphere. It is having an insidious, destructive effect on the way we engage with one another. 

In schools, public services and in our dealings with strangers, our rule-bound, box-ticking, risk-averse culture is designed to protect us from one another. Instead it is making us steadily more fearful and passive. Rather than building a safer or more cohesive society, this tide of regulation is steadily snapping social bonds. 

This week I was talking to a teacher - let's call him Simon - about the barriers he is instructed to put up between himself and his teenage pupils. He and his colleagues are warned by the school 

never to engage with pupils emotionally, 
ask a lone child to stay behind for a talk after class, or 
respond to any confidences about their lives. 

A fear of paedophilia has morphed into a general panic about adult-child relations. The priority isn't pupils' well-being but to protect teachers from any accusations - either of sexual misconduct or of responsibility for pupils' subsequent behaviour.

Last year the school had an urgent call from a psychiatric unit. A pupil had made a suicide attempt because he was so unhappy at home; the only person he wanted to talk to was his teacher. 

Simon was only allowed to call on condition that a senior member of staff was also in the room, writing down his end of the conversation. He was forbidden to show any emotional concern; he was not allowed to ask
how the child was
, only the facts. 

With a distraught boy on the phone, all Simon's instincts were to offer human sympathy. Instead, he tried to convey warmth in his voice. When the call was over the head instructed him to forget the whole thing and not even to think of writing to or visiting the distressed child. Since he was neither a therapist nor a counsellor, he was told he had no role in the child's life outside class.

This emphasis on physical safety and professional [???]  boundaries creates invisible barriers between people that are psychologically damaging but which can't be measured, and so are ignored. Simon's pupil had no idea why he was being held at a distance and rebuffed. All he has learned is that in a crisis he turns to the one person he wants to trust, and gets apparent indifference in return. Simon was very distressed. 

"Lots of kids in our school are desperate to find an adult to relate to. I see why so many of my colleagues have cut off. You aren't allowed to use your judgment, and the sense that you shouldn't care breeds a sense of hopelessness." 

The boy has yet to return to school. 

This cold professionalism is neither the way we imagine teachers to be, nor the way they had to be in the past. Thousands of people have had lives transformed by teachers who gave them a sense of their worth by being interested in the whole child, not just their classroom performance. 

Two friends of mine would never have left the confines of their council estates without teachers who listened to them, and introduced them to a world of thought and conversation. The social and human contact gave them confidence and hope.

Yet an insistence on systems rather than humanity is becoming the norm all over the public sector. 

A woman, "Barbara", who works for a northern council is responsible for managing carers for the disabled. Recently one told her the man he was looking after had been desperate to go on holiday for months but that his social worker was too busy to arrange it. Seizing the initiative, Barbara arranged the holiday herself. When the social worker discovered what she had done, official fury was unleashed. Barbara had overstepped the boundaries. The message was: no initiative will go unpunished. Barbara has been cowed. 

Everywhere there are examples of people retreating from engaging with others because official restrictions discourage it. Local street parties, informal children's football clubs and church camping groups are all closing, casualties of criminal record bureau checks, risk assessments, indemnity insurance and other rules that tell us we cannot trust others and cannot be trusted ourselves. 

In 1999 we found that the proportion of British adults trusting each other had halved in 40 years, from 56% to 29%. That is a horrifying trend. 

None of this makes headlines because it is almost impossible to measure. Our safety-first culture has been driven by horrors such as the Soham killings or the Climbié death. But we don't stop to ask about the invisible costs being incurred by our reaction - the events that don't happen, the trust we don't build, the sense of loneliness, alienation and apathy that's created when people don't feel free to be spontaneous or open. We aren't building a good society this way, but a sick one. 

This government clings to the fantasy that rules can eliminate risk. They can't, but they can destroy our faith in one another. We have to work out how to reverse this trend. European countries haven't chosen this path of endless suspicion. Why have we?

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