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Schools: Music Teachers

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 12 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will offer advice to music teachers about the circumstances in which they may have physical contact with pupils.

My Lords, guidance contained in the document, Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education, which came into force in 2007, makes it clear that it is not realistic to suggest that teachers should never touch pupils. Staff should not, of course, make gratuitous physical contact with their pupils, but there are sound reasons why, in the course of teaching an instrument or coaching a sport, a teacher may need to have physical contact with a pupil.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Does the noble Baroness agree with me that it is important for teachers to feel confident in having physical contact with pupils, not only when teaching an instrument but hugging a child when it is in distress or clearing up quickly and without fuss some diarrhoeal disaster? Those are ways in which a parent would be comfortable with a teacher touching a child. Does she also agree that there is a great deal of evidence that teachers do not feel comfortable with this and that teacher training institutions are advising young teachers that they should not touch children in all but the most extreme circumstances, hence the Musicians Union giving the advice that they have? Should we not review the support and advice we are giving to teachers to see whether we can help them to behave in the way we would like?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. Teachers should be reassured that, in the right circumstances and in the appropriate way, they should be able to touch pupils, whether to show them where to put their fingers to get the correct tone when they are teaching the violin, or if a child falls over in the playground and needs reassurance, to give them a hug as a parent might do. Teachers should feel confident that they can touch pupils in the appropriate way, but it is important that they have guidance, support and training and that the department ensures that that happens.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that this could all get a bit silly? Most pupils and, in fact, most teachers know what is and is not appropriate touch, and to inflict yet more advice on teachers could be counterproductive.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. It would be a great shame if this were to become silly. Music teachers provide a tremendous service to our young people. Music is an essential part of learning, and growing up and I am delighted that music and sport are becoming so much more successful and prevalent in our schools. It is great that I have the opportunity to be clear that we expect teachers to be able to touch and hug and help children in very practical ways in schools.

My Lords, will the Minister encourage schools to be really clear with parents about what is expected in different subject areas and what is right in the way of touching? On a wider point, can she try to ensure that the new PSHE national curriculum helps children to understand what is and what is not appropriate touching and gives them the self-confidence to stand up and object to the wrong sort?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has made a very good link with the new commitment the Government have made to make PSHE statutory. PSHE will help children and young people understand what is appropriate and what is not appropriate touching from adults and, as she was hinting, it will give young people the confidence and assertiveness to be clear about what they see as acceptable.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the child who is frightened of being touched is touched against their consent, and consent is the issue? If a child is asked, “Would it help you if I show you how to put your fingers correctly or how to hold the bow correctly?” the child who is frightened will say no and the child who wants that help will agree. Similarly, the child in the playground to whom the teacher says, “Do you want a hug?” will accept it or reject it. We are forgetting the role of the child in consenting to the touch.

My Lords, I accept the point the noble Baroness is making. The Federation of Music Services which represents providers suggests in its guidance that, as a matter of course, music teachers should discuss with parents and children their approach to teaching. That could mean the teacher saying, “I will show where to place your fingers to make this chord”, and then doing it in a way that does not impose on the child and create a sense of uncomfortable pressure. That is the mark of a good teacher.

My Lords, I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about involving the child, but I was relieved when the Minister said that she does not want things to get a bit silly. However, surely she must agree that things have got a bit silly, as such guidance has been issued for music teachers. Does the Minister have any reflections for the House on how we have got into this extraordinary position of paralysis, one where teachers do not dare to do the natural thing?

My Lords, I listened to the comments made by representatives of the Musicians Union for the report on this subject on the “Today” programme and found it difficult to see where the evidence comes from. The union could not say exactly how many false allegations were being made. It is important that we have evidence in matters of this kind. The department has not received evidence of large numbers of music teachers coming forward with such concerns. If there were, of course we would take these matters very seriously.