‘Hate registers’ criminalise kids for playground insults
Are our children racist homophobes or has the government lost all sense of proportion?
A 10-year-old boy who called a friend 'gay boy' has joined the growing ranks of children criminalised for everyday playground insults. Peter Drury will now be on his school's 'hate register', and monitored for signs of prejudice throughout his school career. His mother's protestations that Peter barely knew about sex, let alone homosexuality, cut no ice.
Still younger children have been branded racist for using words that they could not possibly understand. A five-year-old was reported by her nursery because she refused to let a black girl join in her game. A seven-year-old boy was reported to his local authority for calling two other boys 'chocolate bars' in a playground argument. A six-year-old girl was logged by a playground supervisor for using the term 'blacky', even though the alleged victim had not complained.
Children of all ethnicities have been targeted in this crackdown on hate-bullying. In Tower Hamlets, London, Bangladeshi children are reported for racism for their habit of teasing each other with the term 'Kala Bandar' (black monkey).
A British-Asian friend of mine was shocked when his daughter was accused of racist behaviour: they had been playing a game where each girl was a food item, and the black girl in the group had ended up as chocolate. My friend's daughter was particularly aggrieved since she had actually wanted to be chocolate, and had had to settle for strawberry.
The numbers of children branded racist, sexist or homophobic are steadily growing. Last year I published a report by the filmmaker Adrian Hart which found that 40,000 children are being reported for racist incidents annually. Birmingham City Council alone saw numbers rise from 943 incidents in 2002-03 to 1,606 in 2008-09, while 1,248 were logged by Leeds City Council.
Schools were first asked to report racist incidents to their local education authority in 2002; in 2007, they were asked to log homophobic incidents too.
Now ministers plan to go further. From September it will be a legal requirement for schools to log incidents and to make the database available to Whitehall for analysis. A new consultation document outlines plans to extend incident reporting to 'transphobic bullying', which is apparently bullying that "stems from a hatred or fear of people who are transgender". (Further translation: transgender is "an umbrella term that describes people whose sense of their gender or gender identity is seen as being different to typical gender norms".)
God knows how this cultural studies talk is supposed to bear any relation to the world of five-year-olds. The people who write these policy documents must have erased all memory of what it means to be a child.
Adult words take on a different meaning when they become part of children's games and insults. 'Scab' was the playground insult of choice at my Midlands school during the miners' strike, a term that to us meant someone who had a rubbish coat or who would pick up a 2p piece in the playground. 'Gay' meant a boy who was uncool and didn't like football. We had no concept of sexuality or strike-breaking: every insult was part of the same childish jostling.
Officials treat playground banter with the graveness normally reserved for serious assault. The latest consultation document highlights no fewer than four pieces of government guidance and five pieces of legislation appertaining to gender-related bullying in schools.
It recommends a 13-step process for teachers to respond to sexist language, in addition to which they are supposed to map all sexist and racist incidents and to examine their effect on pupils' attainment. If teachers actually put this into practice they would all be doing full-time PhDs in playground abuse, and would have no time at all to teach.
Of course, it is important that teachers teach children to be open-minded and treat others with respect, and that serious bullying is firmly disciplined. Yet these initiatives override teachers' ability to deal sensitively with issues in their classroom, forcing them to report even the most trivial incidents.
In effect, every childish argument becomes a call for official intervention with incident forms or teams of bullying councillors. Every negative childhood experience is held up as evidence of rampant sexism/racism requiring official correction.
One government document cites a survey which showed that 48 per cent of 11-19 year olds fear being bullied because of their appearance. Have they not read girls' magazines? Worrying about your body shape is, by definition, part of being a teenager.
In many cases these anti-bullying interventions seem to be targeted at parents, who are supposedly teaching their children phobias of all breeds and other inappropriate attitudes. Diversity officers worry that 'from their very first words' children are 'learning racism' from their parents. As a result, local authorities including Kent and Glasgow have sent out anti-racist packs to nurseries, in an attempt to undo this malign parental influence from the start.
Yet children are cruel and will pick on any difference in their teasing, whatever their parents tell them. One liberal humanist couple were reprimanded because their young son had called his classmates "lesbians". They confessed that they were worried that "he will get a record", since "these things stick nowadays". My mother was an ardent feminist but my brother still called me every misogynistic term in the dictionary (and quite a lot that were not). Children can be horrible but grow up to be respectful and sensitive adults.
The government's anti-bullying intervention is based on the assumption that playground insults indicate future offending behaviour. It is apparently a slippery slope between calling a friend 'gay boy' and going gay bashing at the weekend.
Yet homophobic attacks are thankfully rare events in the adult world of criminal justice, far removed from petty insults chucked around outside school. If the government wants to tackle homophobic attacks it would do better to seek to improve police response times, and to butt out of the games of schoolchildren.
Josie Appleton is director of the civil liberties campaign group the Manifesto Club. ·
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