The Times, 23 November 2006


If you go to see the new West End production of The Sound Of Music, I guarantee you can’t help but be struck by just how professional the kids are. The youngest is seven, the show runs at just over two and a half hours, and none of them fidgets, or cries, or gets bored and runs off, or does any of the other things you might expect when your experience of children in theatre is a Nativity play. We seem to read so much about children in this country being disenfranchised from adults, living in parallel, shadowy worlds, that it touched even my hard heart to see a show starring so many talented kids, and playing to a house packed with adults and children alike.

Now, let me introduce you to my mother. She belongs to an amateur dramatic society in Birmingham, called The Highbury Players. They have a Youth Theatre, too, who sometimes appear alongside the adults in productions such as The Diary Of Anne Frank, and sometimes in shows they’ve written themselves, which star, well, pretty much all of them. That’s kind of the point.

Next year’s Youth Theatre extravaganza will be staged in January, but may not go ahead at all, because Birmingham City Council requires them to have trained chaperones to look after the kids in the show. My mum volunteered: let me give you an idea of her qualifications. She’s a former teacher, and currently the Vice-Principal of a Further Education College. She used to be in charge of education in ten prisons and Young Offenders’ Institutions, so she has enhanced Criminal Records Bureau clearance. She is a former Snowy Owl (the Brownie-guide Leader, not the bird), and she has an MBE for her services to education. To clarify, my mother is a pillar of any community you could name, and has done almost no people-trafficking, international drug-smuggling, or failing to recycle.

She’s not qualified to chaperone kids, though, till she’s been for a 90 minute interview with two members of Birmingham’s social services. Nor are her fellow volunteers, who number one primary headteacher (retired), one primary headteacher (current), one cubscout akela, and one serving policeman. If Mother Theresa were alive, this is the Am-Dram group she would join. The interviews can only take place during the day, so she’s going to need to take a half-day off work. She’s the only one who’s managed to get an appointment so far (mid-December, since you ask). The others are still waiting. And only then may Birmingham’s Children’s Services decide if she’s suitable chaperone material. In case you’re confused, I should explain that she lives in the present, and not in the time of Austen.

These children have eschewed hanging around in car parks to do something productive. They have the chance to spend time with kind, responsible adults who are happy to mentor them. All adults aren’t potential rapists, and people willing to spend their social time with kids shouldn’t be automatically suspect. Now could everyone please grow up?