I have been making the final arrangements for this year's summer camps for 8 to 13 year-olds. The teams of volunteers have been checked and trained, the funding has been arranged, the venue booked and the applications have been flowing in steadily. Just as I thought I could relax, I've received an email to say that the terms of our usual insurance cover have been changed and all hazardous activities will be excluded.
These camps used to be held in fields, with the kids crammed into very basic tents. The children helped prepare the food (with real knives) and cook it on primus stoves (real matches and flames). They boiled kettles and washed the dishes. They grew up and many of them come back as volunteer helpers, using the skills they acquired on camp. Nowadays we hire school boarding facilities with comfortable beds in bedrooms with en-suite facilities. Hired staff come in to cook and wash up. The grounds are secure and every activity is assessed using the strictest Health and Safety criteria. In recent years we have given up many of the activities that children used to enjoy e.g. trips to adventure playgrounds - risk of bus crashing, risk of child being injured on a ride or slide, risk of child being lost, risk of paedophiles in park etc. For similar reasons, the kids are no longer allowed to go into the village shops and they are not allowed to be in a room or any area of the campus unless two adults are present.
So, I look at what remains of our itinerary to see what might constitute a threat to the life, limb or welfare of the 47 youngsters for whom I will be held responsible. There are trees in the grounds - should I ban tree-climbing and the usual making of dens? There is an outdoor swimming pool which the children use every afternoon, under the supervision of qualified lifeguards but, I suppose the water could be considered to be hazardous. We have lots of art and craft activities, am I to forbid 13 year-olds to use scissors (all blunt-nosed and child-safe); should we remove all staplers, pins, glue and paint brushes as potentially dangerous? Perhaps we should remove all the knives and forks from the dining room for the same reason.
I take the care of children very seriously and I look after every child for whom I am responsible as if it were one of my own. I used to feel that in loco parentis was the highest degree of responsibility one could aspire to, but the insurance companies don't agree. The fear of litigation has led them to restrict insurance cover to the most banal and unadventurous pursuits. This is frustrating for the children and the volunteer helpers.
I wonder what today's youngsters are learning about life? That every adult is a potential threat to your safety? That you shouldn't extend yourself in any way, don't take risks, don't solve problems, don't dream or invent? Doesn't anyone know that for a twelve year old the greatest hazard is being twelve? I'm not sure that I want to organise any camps for 2008.