Some of Britain's leading children's authors have banded together to boycott school appearances to protest a new rule requiring adults to prove they are not sex offenders before they can enter schools.
The regulation will require adults to undergo a police background check at their own expense to demonstrate they are not a threat to young people. It takes effect in October in response to the 2002 murder of two schoolgirls by a school caretaker.
It is not just the 64 pound ($104) fee that is turning off the authors; it is also the idea that they will have to prove their innocence before be allowed to volunteer their time to read to hundreds of students.
"Of course we have to take care, but this is not necessary," said Michael Morpurgo, a former Children's Laureate whose wide variety of books have long been revered by British students and teachers. "I've done this hundreds of times, and you are never alone with children, there are always 100 to 200 children and teachers around you. It's absurd to think children are in any kind of danger."
The new rule, which takes effect in October, sets up a "Vetting and Barring Scheme" that will be administered by the newly established Independent Safeguarding Authority. It will require anyone who comes into contact with schoolchildren or vulnerable adults to prove that they are not a known threat.
A spokesman for the Home Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with departmental policy, said any individual working with children or vulnerable adults will have to prove their fitness once the rule takes effect. If they pass the criminal background check, their name will be placed on a national database, he said, but if they fail, it would be a crime for them to seek contact with schoolchildren.
2002 murders led to system
The new system was spurred by the 2002 murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by school caretaker Ian Huntley. In that case, some officials had information about sexual misconduct allegations against Huntley, but these concerns were not passed on to educational authorities in the town where he worked.
In response, the government is setting up a national database of individuals cleared to work with children.
The United States does not have national laws of this type, but it is common in many states for adults to have to undergo background checks before they can work at schools, even in a volunteer capacity. But the British law seems to take it further by imposing this requirement on anyone coming into contact with children at school, even for a very brief period.
Morpurgo, whose book War Horse has since been made into a play, says the British government has overreacted.
"We need to warn them, don't get in peoples' cars, be wary, but for authors and illustrators and storytellers to be under this cloud, to have to produce a piece of paper showing you are not a pedophile, I think it's one step too far," he said.
"It's teaching children to be suspicious. You should introduce them to the world and say it's full of kind people with some people amongst them you really have to watch out for, not tell them the whole world is a nasty, wicked place."
'This is ludicrous'
Francesca Simon, author of the popular "Horrid Henry" series, said she resents the implication that authors need to have a police check in order to read to a crowded auditorium.
"To visit is a great privilege, it makes such a connection between children and authors, but this is ludicrous," she said. "You're in a school for two hours, you are never alone with a child, it's not anything like working with children day in and day out."
Authors joining in the boycott include Anne Fine, also a former Children's Laureate, Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, and Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider series and other favorites.
Horowitz wrote in a guest column in The Independent newspaper Thursday that the new rule is "very nearly insane."
"I'm being asked to pay 64 pounds to prove that I am not a pedophile," he said. "After 30 years writing books, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, spreading an enthusiasm for culture and literacy, I find this incredibly insulting."
He said the law seems to have been made by people "with a bleak and twisted view of society."