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Risk anxiety in the classroom: teachers touching children

Alison Jones

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002

Several children are grouped around you. Sarah has had difficulty with an activity and has come to you to talk about it. You praise her for her efforts and achievement. Sarah still looks unsure. She deserves a pat on the back...What should you do?...Let's discuss the risks involved and how we can develop safe practices. (NZEI, 2000: 3)

Discussion about the risks of patting a child on the back is the case study exercise in the New Zealand primary and early childhood teacher union's (NZEI) Training Programme for Safe Practice (2000: 3). The training module aims to encourage practice that "keeps children and staff safe" during "physical contact" between small children and teachers. The need for such training, it is suggested, is because "increasing understanding of child abuse" over the last few years has led to all physical contact with children becoming "risky".

Before they consider whether or not it is safe to pat Sarah's back, teachers are asked to think about their recent interactions with children:

Over the last 24 hours when have you touched a child?...What was happening? By yourselves, please record on Handout 1 for your own information each occasion that you had some physical contact with a child/student. (NZEI, 2000: 2)

Early childhood teachers are asked to record only "less common occurrences" of touching - presumably because accounts of their 'common' touching in the last 24 hours would fill a rather large folder. At the end of the whole training module, which covers the "risks of physical contact", "avoiding allegations of abuse" and what to do about complaints (including "procedures if arrested"), teachers revisit their list of recent touching events on Handout 1 with the question: "Would anyone change anything?" (NZEI, 2000: 7).

This is not an invitation for teachers critically to discuss touch as the new danger to teachers and children, or to debate the possible negative effects of seeing touching children as 'risky'. Rather, teachers are to consider how they might change their existing behaviour to ensure they engage "safely", "professionally" and "compassionately" with children preferably without physically touching them - or in the case of early childhood teaching, keeping touch "occurrences" to a careful minimum.

The union's training module for regulating teacher-touch is a useful text for meditation on the contemporary (self-)government of teacher practice - in particular, the regulation of everyday practices of touch. This chapter, in a book on New Zealand education policy, does not examine the training module in detail so much as focus on its necessity. The chapter considers the logic of the 'touch-as-risky' classroom culture and its related policies and practices - which, I suggest, might be understood as an effect of the contemporary social order known as reflexive modernisation or 'risk society'.

Commonsense In A 'Risk Society'

Unease is characteristic of a 'risk society', and this mood is certainly generated by the teachers' training module. First on the module's list of 'good practice' in relation to touching children is 'use common sense'. Of course, this is precisely what teachers must not do, and the reason they are now in training. What is training if not a challenge to commonsense? 'Use commonsense' is a problematic first lesson in any teaching module, but particularly one aimed at training what teachers might have considered the most 'natural' and mundane of their activities - touching children in their care.

It is reasonable to assume that when teachers are queried about the wisdom of patting a child's back, commonsense is no longer a reliable guide to anything. What commonly counts as 'sensible' ceases to be obvious. It used to be sensible for a caring teacher to cuddle a distressed child, to pat a child on the back to acknowledge work well done, or to sit with a needy child in an out-of-the-way spot to do remedial work or to have a private chat. None of these actions is now self-evidently sensible at all; in fact all of them appear to offer real dangers to children and teachers.

Of course, it was also once commonsense to whack children. In fact, good teachers not so long ago were expected physically to discipline troublesome children as an aspect of effective pedagogical practice. Hitting is no longer officially practiced by teachers, and no longer educationally acceptable in New Zealand1. With this as a precedent, one might suggest that re-learning the 'commonsense' of other forms of touch is a good idea, following enlightened social concerns about child abuse. But it is not my aim here to take a position on whether or not teachers should be trained in 'safe' touch; I am most interested in the logic of such training - that is, why it becomes seen as necessary - and its possible effects.

I would suggest that widespread anxiety about teachers touching children did not arise as a result of people noting a concrete problem (child sexual abuse by teachers), and 'doing something about it'. The 'need' for teachers' touch-training is generated within a much wider social-historical logic. Loss of the reliability of commonsense - and hence teachers' need to be trained in such apparently traditionally 'commonsense' matters as touching children - might be understood as an inevitable product of what Ulrich Beck has called 'reflexive' modernisation (Beck, Giddens & Lash, 1994). It is worth exploring, even briefly, what this term means, in order to speculate on how the culture of the classroom in late modernity - in particular the regulation of touching practices in the primary school and early childhood classroom - is shaped by the social-historical moment which is the subject of this book.

Risk Society And Risk Anxiety

Eschewing debates between modernists and postmodernists, Ulrich Beck argues for a theoretical 'third way' - that we in the West now live in what he calls 'risk society' (Beck, 1992; Beck, Giddens & Lash, 1994: 173). In simple terms, Beck maintains that the technological products of industrial society (early modernity) have led inevitably to a new social formation, 'reflexive' modernity or risk society. While industrial society has been concerned with the distribution and maximisation of 'goods' (such as wealth and employment), risk society is preoccupied with the distribution and limitation of 'bads' (such as pollution, unemployment and family breakdown), the hazardous and unwanted physical and social by-products of industrial society.

This pre-occupation, according to Beck, is manifested socially as general anxiety about the threats of industrial society. The anxiety is generalised because the threats are not controllable. Most of the threats of technology and industry could once be predicted and controlled - or at least be largely confined to certain areas of society, and avoided by the powerful. Now, the most serious threats are no longer limited to threatening only the poor and powerless. The biggest hazards are unpredictable, global and pervasive, and recognise no boundaries. The impact of global warming, for instance, is uncertain, and its threats uncontrollable as world weather patterns change. Biotechnology including genetic engineering offers worldwide risks no-one can be sure about. Food contamination is a frightening problem as hazards such as BSE and new viruses unexpectedly appear in the human food chain... In the face of such threats, says Beck, there is a loss of faith in the usual source of knowledge and certainty: science. Technological society, it appears, cannot provide reliable instructions and guidance to the use and control of its own products. As a result, uncertainty proliferates; people become anxious in a general way about hazards and threats, and increasingly obsessed with risk and safety.

Beck is not suggesting that risks to human life have actually increased in industrial or technological societies. It is easy to argue that apparently uncontrollable risks to people in pre-modern times have been as great or greater (threats such as great plagues, famines and so on); Beck's interest is in modernity and its particular configurations. Neither is he suggesting that uncontrolled technological and ecological threats are 'real' galvanising facts of the risk society; risk society is a form of modernisation in which abstract threat, regardless of its substance, is the key socially organising force2 (Beck, Giddens & Lash 1994: 6).

Beck's focus is primarily on the social consequences of technological change, in particular responses to ecological or environmental threats. Taking a broader scope for Beck's argument, some have argued that a generalised insecurity and obsession with safety has developed not just in relation to pollution, warfare and biotechnology, but in relation to virtually all social and personal activity. Sociologist Frank Furedi (2002) calls this generalised state which appears to have gripped western societies a "culture of fear", a "free-floating anxiety" or a "mood" of unease and suspicion which is a defining dimension of modern risk consciousness and contemporary culture. Furedi maps the massive proliferation of social anxiety about everyday life, particularly in Britain and the United States where there is intense public interest in safety (and victim-hood), which at its most extreme includes such varied innovations as electronic body-implants for tracking one's children, arrests for 'cyber-rape', and the legions of 'trauma counsellors' who patrol sites of mishaps.

We do not usually encounter such manifestations of fear and insecurity in New Zealand everyday life, but I would argue that a generalised social anxiety and its uneasy mood of threat in its most ordinary forms has a significant impact on our lives - particularly for the middle classes. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, within an ordinary 'risk' context, all sorts of everyday activities come to be seen in terms of their potential threats: foods are scanned for their fat or chemical content or genetic status; heavy boxes carry labels to instruct in safe lifting; children's toys come with detailed warnings about possible hazards; sun 'burn times' are published daily; health workers are trained in 'cultural safety'; sexual relationships are assessed for their financial and disease risks as well as their gender politics... And in terms of the topic of this chapter, in schools and classrooms, anxieties about threats to children's safety manifest in 'safe playgrounds' (and the demolition of 'adventure playgrounds'), 'safe' touching, internet safety rules, police checks on workers, school trips cancelled due to possible accidents, a myriad of forms seeking parental approval, and lengthy policies governing outings, sports activities, discipline, child illness, children's rights, being alone with a child, and so on.

Reflexivity And Rationalities Of Risk

Despite the proliferation of warnings and safety messages in everyday life, Beck maintains that, in a general sense, knowledge is no longer the driver of social organisation in a risk society. Increasingly, lack of knowledge comes to determine responses to generalised threats. As Beck puts it " is not knowledge but non-knowledge which is the medium of 'reflexive' modernisation. To put it another way: we are living in the age of side-effects...society is changed not just by what is seen and intended but also by what is unseen and unintended. The side-effect, not instrumental rationality, is becoming the motor of social history". (Beck, Giddens & Lash, 1994: 175, 181) (original italics). Side-effects are uncertain, unexpected, potentially dangerous, therefore anxiety-producing - and a distinguishing feature of 'reflexive' modernisation and the "new disorder of risk civilisation" (1994: 12).

Beck uses 'reflexive' in somewhat the same way as the phrase 'reflex action'. Reflexive modernisation is the "autonomous, undesired and unseen, transition" from the industrial to the next ('risk') period of modernity (1994: 6). This compulsive modernisation process produces, he argues, "self-confrontation with the effects of risk society that cannot be dealt with or assimilated in the system of industrial society" (1994: 6). The knowledge or certainty which characterises industrial modernity cannot be a 'driver' of risk society because, by definition, risk is about the unknown and the unknowable. Risks are what might happen; science can only be certain (in its own terms) about what is happening.

The autonomous nature of risk, as understood by Beck, means that risk is seen not only as uncontrollable in a general social sense, but as independent of the desires or intervention of any individual. Risk in reflexive modernity is not so much about the accumulation of many risks, but about a state of social and individual being: 'at risk'. To be 'at risk' is to face risks that are independent of us. In a risk culture, as Furedi puts it: "...danger is not merely the outcome of any individual act but is something that exists autonomously, quite separate from the actor..." (2002: 19). This means that the "role of society is to warn its members about this complex of hazards with which they are compelled to live" (2002: 20). Hence, the proliferation of demands for regulatory policies and warnings to 'ensure' public and individual safety.

It is tempting to argue that a risk society with its widespread sense of uncertainty produces an irrational culture of fear and an excess of over-regulation. Anxieties about, say, patting Sarah's back are a good example of this irrational 'over-reaction'. But it is not necessary to believe that people are irrational in their contemporary responses to perceived risk (though some such as Furedi might be said to provide convincing evidence of this). Rather, it is possible to argue that new rationalities of risk develop within a risk society, including its schools. The requirement for teachers to recall, and question, every time they touched a child in the last 24 hours, and to consider how they might touch their pupils less frequently, makes sense in a risk society: it is a newly rational, and commonsense, activity. In other words, while Beck rejects instrumental rationality as an organising factor in a risk society, it is possible to argue that a risk society generates its own rationalities - and it is these which I consider below in relation to touching children.

Risk And Children

Early childhood researchers who use a 'risk society' framework to understand contemporary childhood point out that anxieties related to children are particularly intense; risks to children are considered to be particularly reprehensible and pernicious (Jackson & Scott, 1999; Scott, Jackson & Backett-Milburn, 2001). Frank Furedi (2002a) believes that anxiety about risks to children has reached a state of paranoia; he cites ubiquitous television programmes, magazines, books and alarmist headlines whose advice related to child care and child development is focused primarily on avoidance of danger - particularly the danger of accidents and abuse. He points out that dangers to children have not increased historically; in fact children in affluent countries are more 'safe' than they have ever been, but anxiety about danger to children has skyrocketed - far beyond any likelihood of harm, seriously limiting modern children's experiences and increasing their levels of fear.

Perhaps the view of risk as being particularly deadly for children is a product an age of uncertainty. Desires to protect the nostalgic fantasy of childhood as a period of innocence, security and certainty might be expected to intensify when the world seems less controllable and more threatening. Indeed, in a risk society the institution of childhood itself is seen as 'at risk'. As Jackson and Scott put it: "childhood is increasingly being constructed as a special realm under siege from those who would rob children of their childhoods" (1999: 86). Because children are constituted as a protected, innocent group and childhood as a protected state, "both become loci of particularly intense risk anxiety", and this risk anxiety conversely helps construct childhood as a special state (1999: 86).

Central to the maintenance of childhood as 'special' is the exclusion of modern children from experiences or knowledge of sex and sexuality. Childhood and sexuality are seen as inimical to each other - sexuality is seen as antithetical to the state of 'innocence' which has emerged as a "defining characteristic of the 'normal' child". (Jackson & Scott 1999: 87; Jackson 1982). Protection of children from sex and sexual abuse (in a risk society, in relation to children all sex is seen as 'abuse') has thus become a particularly intense social desire and social concern (see Levine, 2002).

Unsurprisingly in this context, schools and early childhood education centres become the focus for intense anxiety. Pressure increases for principals to develop policies to manage and therefore supposedly limit an increasing array of possible risks to children, including the risks of accidents, of bullying, of not learning, of damage to self esteem, of catching a disease at school. Added to this list is the need to protect children from sexual abuse at school; and given their privileged position as defining childhood by their absence, sex and sexual abuse are the object of particularly intense, and even hysterical, policing.

As a result, even though the risk of sexual abuse from teachers is minimal (it may be that sexual abuse from other children at school is more likely), the policies and guidelines which surround its faint possibility are significant - as we see below. These policies are extended further by necessary attempts to protect teachers now compelled to work in an environment characterised by anxieties about sexual abuse. Training programmes such as the one mentioned above, and policies which encourage minimal touching, are part of teachers' strategic protection against the accusing child.

Rather than seeing the proliferation of such policy and regulation as an oppressive, irrational or exaggerated response to risk anxiety, it might be understood as one of several rationalities of risk or 'risk logics' which have developed in contemporary schooling, in which teachers are active and positive participants.

The Logic Of Ubiquitous Risk

The attentive reader will notice that, by stating that the risk of sexual abuse by teachers is "minimal", I have shifted from talking about a generalised 'risk anxiety' to calculations of the real likelihood of particular risks. Yet as I stated earlier, if we accept the reflexive modernisation thesis, risk is not now normally considered a calculable object. In a risk society, according to Beck, social practice and policy is governed not by specific risk calculation, but by generalised risk anxiety born of the incalculability of risk and its imagined ubiquitous presence.

In other words, calculating that a child has more chance of being damaged or killed in a motor accident or ingesting a poisonous plant on the way to school than being sexually molested by a teacher becomes irrelevant - even illogical - in a risk society obsessed with children's sexual safety. Indeed, the most common argument against those such as myself who urge caution in relation to anxiety about sexual abuse at school is along the lines of "we don't know how often child sexual abuse [by teachers] happens, because it may be hidden. But it can happen, and that is enough to justify any protective strategies" or "The changes to management and rules might just save even one kiddie from abuse".

That child sexual abuse 'can happen' in New Zealand primary schools and early childhood education became a truth in 1993, in the wake of the high-publicised Peter Ellis case. Ellis was a flamboyant, popular (and bisexual) worker in a highly-regarded middle class crèche in Christchurch who was convicted on several counts of sexual abuse of children at the crèche. One of the most historically significant aspects of the Ellis case was that it marked the mobilisation of a new risk logic in the education community - teachers and early childhood educators as a group became a threat to children (Jones, 2003a). Ellis represented not a 'bad' individual to be removed from the presence of children (as teacher-molesters had been understood in the past), but he embodied a 'risk' - a sign that any teacher could be an abuser, and that all children were potentially at risk of sexual abuse in schools and early childhood centres.

This new generalised threat was supported at the time through reference to evidence - not of child sexual abuse in New Zealand early childhood centres (there was only one other case3), but in North American ones. A research study by David Finkelhor and Linda Meyer Williams in the United States had purported to 'prove' that 5.5 per 10,000 children were at risk of sexual abuse per year in early childhood education (Finkelhor & Meyer Williams, 1988). New Zealand education advisors stated confidently that there was "no reason to believe that incidence of abuse of pre-schoolers will be any different" here than in the United States (Wood & Hassell, 1992: 9). However, a careful reading of Finkelhor and Meyer Williams' research indicates that, far from their study being a good basis for understanding what happens in New Zealand early childhood education, there is little reason to accept their conclusions at all (Jones, 2003c). Not only was their methodology very doubtful (by their own admission) but they also included as their flagship teacher sexual abuse example the infamous McMartin day care ritual abuse case in California, which was still in court at the time of the publication of their research. While Finkelhor and Meyer Williams were happy to assume in their research report that the McMartin daycare staff were guilty of abusing "hundreds" of children, all staff involved in the case were in fact later acquitted.

In other words, although it was cited as providing confidence that there is a problem in New Zealand, the Finkelhor and Meyer Williams research failed to provide good evidence for seeing teachers as abusers. In addition, the galvanising case in New Zealand was shaky. Serious questions remain about whether Peter Ellis was in fact an abusing teacher, or whether he was simply a product of the desires of a risk society. Despite the 'guilty' decisions of the jury, there is an extremely strong argument (Hood, 2001) to suggest that Ellis the abusing teacher was a mere fantasy constructed out of historical social anxieties - anxieties about child sexual abuse, men as abusers, male teachers, and homosexual teachers. In other words, anxiety and threat are inextricably linked; not only does threat produce anxiety, but equally strongly anxiety produces threat, and sometimes 'real evidence' of threat. The inevitability of risk and threat reminds us of Beck's comment about the important place of non-knowledge, or 'the unseen and unwilled' in a risk society (Beck, Giddens & Lash 1994: 174). What legitimately motivates risk society, he maintains, is reflexive anxiety, rather than certainty - however mythic certainty might be. The popular reflexive (rather than reflective) take on a problematic situation prioritises 'risk identification and limitation'; a more critical approach is impossible because "there is always the risk ... you can never be sure".

As Beck would predict, despite the weakness of Finkelhor and Meyer Williams' study, the collapse of the McMartin case, and the fantastical allegations by the children in the Ellis case, the authors of the many New Zealand education policy advice booklets4 which followed Ellis' trial considered these examples sufficient to require far-reaching regulation of teacher practice. Their advice galvanised leading early childhood and primary teachers and managers in New Zealand to 'discover' a new generalised menace in their midst, and to put in place rational methods and policies to ensure that a new category of abuser - teachers - were not a risk to children.

The Logic Of Teacher Self-Regulation

Ellis the scapegoat was jailed for almost seven years. His trial and sentence confirmed for teachers and early childhood educators that they were in a difficult position whatever his guilt or innocence. In a risk society, if he was guilty, all teachers were implicated as a potential abuse risk. If he was not guilty, all teachers had something to fear - being unjustly accused and even jailed. Significantly, Ellis's trial was not seen as a threat only to homosexual or male teachers; all teachers were at risk of being either 'abusers' or 'victims'. Teachers were now very clearly in a 'risky occupation'.

The educational advisors and authors of the policy advice documents assumed Ellis was guilty, and that all teachers were a potential risk to children. As already mentioned, they also assumed Finkelhor and Meyer Williams were correct, and implied that almost 100 children a year were at risk of sexual abuse in New Zealand early childhood education5. Finkelhor and Meyer Williams had 'found' that sexual abuse of children occurred most often in toilets, and that sexual molestation was carried out surprisingly frequently by women. As a result, early childhood centres in New Zealand implemented 'safety' rules about toileting and nappy-changing; two staff were to be present, toileting areas were to be visible at all times, walls and doors were demolished, windows and mirrors installed, rosters altered. Other safety procedures insisted that staff were never to be alone with a child, and were not to get friendly with families, including not transporting children to and from school or centre (something some New Zealand teachers had done regularly in their communities). These policies and practices remain in place today.

The Ministry of Education required all early childhood education centres develop written 'safety policies' which detail these arrangements. Early childhood and primary educators as well as workers in the school grounds were now to undergo mandatory police checks, and primary schools were also encouraged to develop their own child safety policies, which in many schools include rules about touching children, reporting-procedures for any touch event, and instructions to never be with a child out of sight of other teachers. School outings, one-to-one remedial sessions and camps became subject to special parent meetings, checks of staff, signed parental permission, and detailed contingency plans for any possible risky moment.

Teachers Lead The Charge

One might assume that New Zealand teachers would have reacted with hostility and unease to the clear implications of these practices - that they are not to be trusted with children. And it might have been expected that they would resist the unprecedented, detailed regulation of their basic professional practices of care. Quite the contrary; teachers led the changes to the regulation of teacher practice. The early childhood teachers' union (then called CECUA6) produced a 40-page booklet in 1993 (still in use) entitled Preventing Sexual Abuse of Children within Early Childhood Services: A Practical Resource Kit. The union expressed 'extreme concern about allegations of sexual abuse of children within early childhood centres' (although no evidence about the substance of allegations was provided); the Resource Kit was an expression of their concern (CECUA, 1993: 5).

The Resource Kit encourages staff in New Zealand early childhood education to engage in collective policy development through detailed reappraisal of daily events, such as "How can we limit the opportunities for staff to be alone or out of sight?" "Who is authorised to toilet or change children?" "Do we keep good toileting records?" "How much understanding about sexual abuse is there among staff at our centre?" (CECUA, 1993: 10-19). The Kit sets up some "Key Principles" to guide policy, including the principle: "Limiting the times when adults are alone with children in the centre limits the opportunities for sexual abuse to occur, and avoids suspicion" (1993: 20). In developing their centre's policy, staff are encouraged to follow the policy statement templates in another booklet entitled Prevent Child Abuse: Guidelines for Early Childhood Education Services published by the Ministry of Education in 1993. This booklet suggests wording such as "This early childhood service ensures that its staff and other adults visiting or working in the services are well supervised and visible in the activities they perform with children" (Ministry of Education, 1993: 28); "This early childhood service encourages staff to keep their personal and professional lives separate" (1993: 30). While the Prevent Child Abuse Guidelines are about 'abuse', sexual abuse is clearly the motivating anxiety. The five books listed for children's reading focus on sexual abuse, and two of the three reference books for adults are about sexual abuse7.

The risk to children is not, of course, the sole motivation for teachers' anxiety about sexual abuse in education settings. Teachers are caught between the two 'risks' mentioned at the beginning of this section: they are at risk of either abusing children, or being accused of abusing them. Given the doubts about Ellis's guilt, and other emerging high-publicity cases in the later 1990s where male primary teachers were unjustly accused of sexual abuse, concerns about false allegations grew dramatically amongst teachers and early childhood educators, particularly men. The fact that four female colleagues of Ellis were also originally charged with sexual abuse - although the charges were dropped before the trial - worried women teachers. Despite its title, the Preventing Sexual Abuse of Children within Early Childhood Services booklet indicates the union's proper concern about the risk to teachers of sexual abuse allegations. The booklet's purpose, along with protecting children, is to "protect workers and teachers from false accusations of abuse" (CECUA, 1993: 5). Anxiety about the risk of the accusing child meant that seemingly draconian surveillance procedures, such as two workers toileting children, and never being 'out of sight', were seen by many teachers as both logical and as necessary protection for themselves. If an accusation is made, colleagues can be witnesses to the innocence of their colleagues.

Policies To Make The Now-'Risky' Teacher 'Safe'

While the early childhood educators wrote booklets to guide policy for 'safe' practice, the primary teachers' union also developed for teachers a Code of Conduct to guide touching practices. This Code states clearly that teaching has become a risky business and it provides guidelines for distancing teacher and child. Here it is in abbreviated form:

Where physical contact is concerned, teachers and support staff ... are in a high risk occupation. Any physical contact with students presents a risk to the teacher or staff member...

With any type of physical contact between staff member and child there is an inherent risk that it can be construed as assault. Restricting physical contact to those times where common sense says that the safety and wellbeing of the child clearly require this, will lessen the risk.

Some children have a very affectionate nature and express themselves freely seeking close physical contact e.g. hand holding, putting their arms around teachers and other children...In consultation with parents, children should have the situation explained so they do not feel rejected when action is taken e.g. when staff remove themselves from contact.

Avoid being alone with a child, including pupil monitors/helpers whenever possible. Where staff need to be alone with a child they need to use extremely careful judgement and remain in view of others eg. install mirrors, have glass panels in internal doors or leave doors open... (NZEI Physical Contact Code of Practice, 2002:

The union's in-service training programme mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, in which teachers are invited to see patting Sarah's back as a 'risky situation', was developed to support this Code. Given the Code's injunction that touching should be restricted to 'those times where commonsense says that the safety and wellbeing of the child clearly require this', suggests that Sarah's back should remain un-patted and that alternative, no-touch, strategies should be developed to congratulate her on work well done, such as a certificate, or perhaps a public handshake.

My focus group research into New Zealand primary teachers' reports of their touching practices (Jones, 2001a; 2003a, 2003b, 2003c) indicates that many teachers - particularly young ones - have perfected touch avoidance, with such strategies as the 'standoffish' pose, the 'shoo them off' tactic, the hands-in-pockets posture, or the lock-the-door approach. They have also developed new regimes of 'proper' or 'appropriate' touch: the 'high-five' where only the palms make contact, or recruiting other children's comforting touch8.

I'll touch a child only when I really have to - on the arm or back maybe. Or in an emergency. And even then maybe not, if there is a female staff member there she will always do it. Never the trunk area. Not the head, that is culturally insensitive... Nowhere, really! (laugh) It could easily be misconstrued. High fives, special certificates, a smile, getting down to their level. [Those] are ways you can 'touch' a child without actually getting ... actually touching them to, like, tell them they are doing well. (first year male teacher)

Yesterday we had an interschool game and a boy did so well I wanted to congratulate him and I went up and instead of awhi-ing him [gesture of arm around the child's shoulders], I was standoffish. (male principal)

When a child is really inconsolable, sobbing, from name-calling or something, and they just need an arm around them, you just can't...You are just aware that it is not part of the protocol, so you get other kids to make them feel better, or you try to distract them somehow (experienced female teacher)

I used to cuddle the kids. I wouldn't now. If a child is upset I'll get some other children to comfort them. (experienced female teacher)

Hands in pockets. They grab hold of your hands, so fold your arms. Tell them to do something, get them sent off on a message, or 'don't lean on me because I am tired'. That's a humorous one. (male first year teacher)

I lock my [classroom] is just too awkward a situation to have someone [child] in there when I am on my own (male first year teacher)

Avoidance seems a reasonably common response to threats in a risk society (which might perhaps be more accurately dubbed 'risk avoidance' society). Risk avoidance motivates countless activities from forbidding children to walk to school to whole-school compulsory summer hat-wearing. Avoidance of touch is a classic form of risk avoidance, and has become the norm in many schools and playgrounds such that when a teacher does cuddle a child, it becomes a 'remarkable' event.

The other common risk avoidance mechanism in classrooms is mutual adult surveillance, or 'lines of sight,' amongst adults in schools - the tactic also common in early childhood centres. Almost one third of graduating primary teacher trainees in an Auckland survey (Jones, 2003b) stated, unprompted, in relation to a question about touching children, that they had learned they must never be alone with a child, and in focus group discussions with teachers at several primary schools, almost all teachers said 'being visible' was perhaps the most important safety procedure for teachers in terms of avoiding sexual abuse allegations. As two experienced male teachers in one of the focus groups put it

If you have another staff person there and they see what went on, if there are any questions later you have a witness to back you up. Otherwise it is the child's word against yours and parents pretty much would want to take the child's side.

I always look around if I am in the playground and there is a sticky situation which could involve me touching some child - like a hurt or upset kid or something. Is there another teacher there? I make another child go and get a woman teacher before I do anything. Rona and I always back each other up like that.

The safety strategy of mutual surveillance is deemed particularly necessary in early childhood education where touching children cannot normally be avoided. But while the strategy may give the teachers some comfort, it is problematic on at least two counts. Collegial surveillance certainly did not work in Ellis's case; his women colleagues were initially charged as collaborators, and he was charged successfully with carrying out sexual abuse in an open crèche, and in full sight of others (who nevertheless saw nothing). And Finkelhor and Meyer Williams warned that women early childhood teachers often "abuse in groups" (Finkelhor & Meyer Williams, 1988: 40). In addition, announcements of mutual surveillance - and touch avoidance - could contribute to the anxiety parents might feel about teachers. Safety procedures which "limit opportunities for sexual abuse to occur" by staff might, paradoxically, fuel rather than reduce public worries, by reinforcing the idea that teachers are potential abusers who must be watched at all times.

This last point indicates the difficulty of risk society logic for teachers. Rather than attempt to resist its logic, teachers have developed responses which are rational in its terms. Individual surveillance strategies have been taken up as a rational response to potential abuse allegations, but the need for such supportive surveillance in the first place, arguably, has been precipitated by teachers' collective co-operation in identifying themselves as a source of danger for children. In other words, teachers as individuals have been obliged to engage mechanisms to guard against their apparently always-present abusive collective potential. Paradoxically, this situation becomes necessary partly because, via the union's own policies and the Ministry's requirements, 'teachers' are a group under suspicion.

Risk's Effects

My focus group discussions in six primary schools indicate that the union's policy and advice is unevenly heeded. During my research I encountered some experienced women teachers who are adamant that they 'touch and cuddle kids'. Other women and men teachers are equally adamant that such behaviour is unwise, even foolish. Many primary school teachers - and almost all teacher trainees - I spoke with were clear that they were 'not prepared to take the risk', even though they were confronted reasonably regularly with children who, they believed, needed and wanted to be touched. Some teachers are distressed about the limitation they feel they must impose on their relationships with children in their care. One male teacher, who actively avoids touching children, noted

There is that momentary look on the kid's face when you keep them at a distance...they wonder what they have done to upset you, what's wrong with them that you won't let them close. It is just a momentary thing that goes across their eyes and their face.

Many experienced teachers' 'touch stories' are expressed in these sorts of terms - not as worries about how to avoid touch, but as concern and confusion about the possible negative effects of touch avoidance and abuse anxiety. Some of the countless stories reported to me have included:

It is possible to argue that these sorts of anxious stories, as well as the events to which they refer, are effects of the anxieties about touch and child sexual abuse risk - which, in turn, might be understood as one of the many unintended 'side effects' or manifestations of the 'risk society' form of late modernity, and its generalised sense of threat and mood of unease. Certainly, it is not the active intention of teachers or principals to deprive children of the chance to see the sea lion or to force teachers to lose sleep - or to shun the pedagogical efficacy of touch. It is not the purpose of school managers and union officials to develop policy which reduces the pleasure teachers might take in touching children, or the real joys children might get from hugging their teachers. It is not teachers' desire that, for many of them, close proximity to children is now automatically experienced as discomfort (Jones, 2001a). To condemn these effects as the tragic, paranoid and unnecessary outcomes of irrational risk anxiety 'gone too far' might give fleeting satisfaction. But censure hardly addresses teacher anxiety about touch and its limiting practices, now reasonably common features of the New Zealand school system.

What is worthwhile is addressing the logic underlying the reticence and fear, which assumes the anxieties about touch are located in the 'real problem' of child sexual abuse by teachers. The NZEI is mistaken in asserting in its 'safe practice' training module that the need for the programme is due to "increasing understanding of child [sexual] abuse". Any need for the regulation of teacher touch is far more likely to be a product of increasing public anxiety about child sexual abuse. New Zealand early childhood and primary teachers have not yet attempted actively to address that anxiety in any other way than accept and participate in it. An interesting alternative response would be an attempt to confound that anxiety by, for instance, announcing their school or centre as a place where teachers celebrate touch rather than avoid it. In a risk society, that celebration would need to be understood as 'safe' in contemporary terms, but it could offer a 'radical' sense of teachers both as educators of public anxiety and perception, and as professionals guided by confident pleasure in their own touching practices.

If we accept - as we have for this chapter - the reflexive modernisation thesis, it is not knowledge (or in this case, understanding) which drives the everyday practices of a risk society; risk societies are driven by responses to perceived dangers, threats and uncertainties. These responses entail the production of rationalities of risk - a logic of government and management, unrelated to the extent of any 'real' problem. In fact, as I hope I have shown - the 'real' problem is a simulacrum - it cannot be independently located, because the responses already presume the 'real' problem. That is, teachers are not merely protected from being abusers, but are constituted as potential sexual abusers, by the representation of the issue, including the strategies they have actively so far put in place to govern the 'risky' territory of touch.



CECUA (Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa) (1993) Preventing the Sexual Abuse of Children within Early Childhood Services: A Practical Resource Kit Wellington: CECUA

Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage

Beck, U., Giddens, A., & Lash, S. (1994) Reflexive Modernisation: Politics, Tradition Aesthetics and the Modern Social Order, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Finkelhor, D. & Meyer Williams, L. (1988) Nursery crimes: Sexual abuse in day care, Newbury Park: Sage

Furedi, F. (2002) Culture Of Fear : Risk-Taking And The Morality Of Low Expectation, London: Continuum

Furedi, F. (2002a) Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring The Experts May Be Best For Your Child, Chicago: Chicago Review Press

Hood, L. (2001) A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Crèche case, Dunedin: Longacre Press.

Jackson, S. (1982) Childhood and Sexuality, Oxford: Blackwell

Jackson, S & Scott, S. (1999) 'Risk anxiety and the social construction of childhood', in D. Lupton (Ed) Risk and Sociocultural Theory, pp. 86-107, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jones, A. (Ed) (2001) Touchy Subject: Teachers Touching Children, Dunedin: Otago University Press

Jones, A. (2001a). 'Learning proper masculine pleasure', in A. Jones (Ed.), Touchy Subject: Teachers Touching Children, (pp. 108-116), Dunedin: Otago University Press

Jones, A. (2003a) 'Touching children: Policy, social anxiety and the 'safe' teacher', Journal of Curriculum Theorizing Special Issue: Childhood and Cultural Studies. Summer (in press).

Jones, A. (2003b) 'Against 'awareness': Primary teacher trainees and touching children' (manuscript available from author)

Jones, A. (2003c) 'Risk Anxiety, Policy and the Spectre of Sexual Abuse In Early Childhood Education' (manuscript available from author)

Levine, J. (2002) Harmful To Minors: The Perils Of Protecting Children From Sex, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Lupton, J. (1999) (Ed) Risk and Sociocultural Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

New Zealand Educational Institute, Te Riu Roa (NZEI) (2002) Physical Contact Code of Conduct (

New Zealand Educational Institute, Te Riu Roa (NZEI) (2000) Training Programme: Safe Practice. Wellington: NZEI

Saphira, M. (1985) The Sexual Abuse of Children, Auckland: Papers Inc.

Saphira, M. (1987) For Your Child's Sake: Understanding Sexual Abuse, Auckland: Reed Methuen

Scott, S., Jackson, S. & Backett-Milburn, K. (2001) 'Swings and roundabouts: Risk anxiety and the everyday worlds of children', in A. Jones (Ed.) Touchy Subject: Teachers Touching Children, Dunedin: Otago University Press

Ministry of Education (1993) Prevent Child Abuse: Guidelines for Early Childhood Education Services. Wellington: Learning Media

Wood, B. & I. Hassall (1992) Minimising the Risk of Sexual Abuse of Children in Early Childhood Services, Wellington: Office of the Commissioner for Children


  1. Corporal punishment became illegal in New Zealand schools in 1990 with the amendment to the Education Act 1989.
  2. This reading of Beck is debated; some maintain that Beck does suggest that the 'side effects' of technology are real threats which underpin a rational 'risk society', others do not agree with this interpretation of Beck. Those interested in such debates should consult the large sociological literature on 'risk society'.
  3. The only other early childhood centre sexual abuse case (other than Ellis) was that of an untrained helper at the Wellington Hospital Crèche, Geoffrey David Scott. Scott was sentenced to 7 years in jail in 1994 after being found guilty of sexually abusing 5 children in his care. He denied the charges.
  4. These were: Sexual Abuse and the School, Department of Education, Wellington, 1989; Minimising the Risk of Sexual Abuse of Children in Early Childhood Services, A Report by B. Wood and I. Hassall Office of the Commissioner for Children, Wellington, 1992; Prevent Child Abuse: Guidelines for Early Childhood Education Services Ministry of Education, Wellington, 1993; Protecting Children from Abuse: Guidelines for Organisations Working with Children, B. Wood and M. Smith, Office of the Commissioner for Children, Wellington, 1993; Preventing the Sexual Abuse of Children within Early Childhood Services: A Practical Resource Kit Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa (CECUA), Wellington, 1993.
  5. Based on Finkelhor and Meyer Williams' calculation that the risk of being sexually abused in US registered daycare centres annually was 5.5 per 10,000 children in care. In 1999, 172,000 children were enrolled in New Zealand early childhood education services
  6. The Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa (CECUA) amalgamated in 1994 with the primary teachers' union the NZEI (New Zealand Educational Institute) to form NZEI Te Riu Roa which now represents over 34,000 members.
  7. Two of the latter books (Saphira 1985,1987) assert that '1 in 4' girls and '1 in 10' boys in New Zealand are sexually abused by age sixteen - figures which have been seriously questioned, partly because of their broad definitions of sexual abuse.
  8. The qualitative data reported in this chapter come from my focus-group research in six New Zealand primary schools. The first four quotes here are reported in Jones (2003a), and the last two are from Jones, 2001: 112. All names are pseudonyms.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 10 February 2003