In this age of air-bagged, mollycoddled, infantilised over-regulation it can make my spirits soar to discover that out there in the maquis of modern Britain there is still some freedom fighter who is putting up resistance against the encroachments of the state; and when I read of their struggle I find myself wanting to stand on my chair and cheer, or perhaps to strike a City Hall medal in their honour.
Such were my feelings yesterday morning when I read of my new hero, or heroes, to be precise. We are talking of a married couple from Dulwich, south London, by the name of Oliver and Gillian Schonrock. I have not been able to contact this illustrious pair – since it didn’t seem fair to phone them up on a Sunday – but if the papers are right, they deserve the thanks of us all. They have taken the sword of common sense to the great bloated encephalopathic sacred cow of elf and safety. And for this effrontery they are, of course, being persecuted by the authorities.
What do they want? They want their children, aged eight and five, to have the right to walk or cycle one mile to school. They have found a route that seems perfectly safe to them – involving one crossing of the road, with the assistance of a lollipop lady or other parents. In doing so, they have scandalised the apparatus of the modern British state, because they have enough faith in their children, and in the safety of London’s streets, to allow them to do this on their own. “We wanted to create the simple freedom of our childhood,” says Oliver Schonrock. “Like everybody else our age, we spent a lot more time with our friends playing in the streets or parks without parental supervision and without our parents becoming unduly worried.”
What happened to the Schonrocks, when they were so rash as to allow their children to go to school or play in the park on their own? They were reported to the school, and the school consulted the rules. Oo-er, said the school: according to guidance issued by the former Department for Children, Schools and Families, a school must assess whether a child is likely to suffer harm on the way to and from its premises, and if the answer is yes, then the parents must be reported. Last week the Schonrocks met the headmaster and were told that they must either supervise the journey, in both directions, or else be referred to social services; and I have to say I think that edict is utterly barmy.
I know there are many parents who will be nervous of according complete sympathy to the Schonrocks. They may feel they are slightly eccentric, or that the streets of leafy Dulwich are different from other parts of town. But the fundamental point is that this is the business of the parents and not that of the state. If Mr and Mrs Schonrock have carefully assessed the route, and considered the advantages and disadvantages, then they should overwhelmingly be given the benefit of the doubt and the freedom to make up their own minds. Gillian Schonrock says she is confident that “the benefits to our children far outweigh the potential risk from ‘stranger danger’, road traffic accidents and other factors”; and as it happens I believe she is almost certainly right. London is now one of the safest big cities on earth, with youth violence down 10 per cent over the past two years, robbery down 20 per cent – and the murder rate at its lowest since 1978.
Of course no one can be complacent, not when we have a continuing scourge of knife and gang crime. That is why we need to maintain police numbers, and the Safer Neighbourhood teams, and that is why we are doing everything we can to address a tragic problem that especially damages the lives of young black males. We have taken 10,000 knives off the streets, we are tackling recidivism with a highly effective educational unit for young offenders at Feltham, and we are expanding mentoring schemes for some of the most alienated and vulnerable young people.
But you need to think more deeply about the psychology of the kids who get caught up in these gangs. What advantages do they get? They get hierarchy, and boundaries, and a sense of belonging and protection. But more fundamentally they get a sense of adrenalin and daring; and the tragedy of formal education today is that anything remotely risky or exciting is simply pasteurised to oblivion.
That is why we are this autumn encouraging the expansion of You London, a police-inspired project to get more young people involved in uniformed groups such as the Scouts, the Guides, the cadets and so on. You might not think it was every child’s cup of tea, but there is a huge waiting list of children who want to join. Why? Because there aren’t enough adult volunteers to help with the activities. And why aren’t there enough adults willing to volunteer? Partly because of the blasted Criminal Records Bureau-ridden elf and safety culture that assumes there is a paedophile lurking behind every bush.
Children, especially male children, need to learn about risk and daring; and if we don’t give them opportunities for excitement they will simply invent their own, with gangs, and sometimes that will end in disaster. That is why I passionately support the right of the Schonrocks to take their own decisions, and to take their own risks, and I hope our new Government does so, too.
We talk a lot about giving people responsibility. What the hell does that mean if the authorities are forced, by the rules, to second-guess the child-rearing decisions of this south London couple? Their vision of urban life is profoundly attractive – a city so well policed, and with so strong a sense of community, that children can walk or cycle on their own to school. Instead of hounding the Schonrocks we should be doing everything we can to make their dream come true – in every part of the city.
The original article appeared in The Daily Telegraph