How mother fought nativity photo ban

Share this article

A MOTHER who wanted to film her six-year-old daughter as Mary in the school nativity play has revealed how she forced Edinburgh council to reverse its filming ban.

Sarah Shiels, who is studying law, challenged the council ruling which prohibited filming and photographing children in school plays and on sports days.

The council tried to stop parents filming their children in case the material fell into the hands of paedophiles.

Ms Shiels said: "I think everybody thought it was crazy. The teachers and the parents were all against it - and I could see a confrontation happening at the nativity play unless something was done."

Ms Shiels approached a firm of Edinburgh solicitors and sought an interim interdict challenging the ban.

After an emergency council meeting on Tuesday morning, councillors backtracked. On Wednesday they then issued a statement saying they had never meant a ban to be imposed, insisting the policy was just intended as a guideline for headteachers.

The change in policy came in time for Sarah Shiels to film her daughter’s school nativity play, which took place on Thursday morning at Tollcross primary school in Edinburgh.

Ms Shiels said she was incensed at the idea of her little girl’s special day being ruined by bureaucratic meddling.

She believed the council guidelines were seriously flawed - and were more aimed at protecting the authority from litigation rather than protecting children.

"It was disingenuous to say it was child protection - they were trying to protect themselves."

Ms Shiels said parents at her daughter’s school were given only three days warning about the ban - when they were handed letters by their children.

The note warned parents that under new council regulations, aimed at preventing filming by paedophiles, each would have to give permission before filming of the school nativity play, could be allowed. Ms Shiels realised that with only three days’ notice it was highly unlikely that everyone would be able to comply.

"It was such short notice. What made me so angry was that there was no consultation," she explained. "It was a complete over-reaction by the council."

Ms Shiels, from Joppa, said there was no way every parent would have been able to sign and return a permission slip to the school by the day of the play - which is what the new council guidelines required if parents were to be allowed to take pictures at the show.

The third-year student at Edinburgh University soon realised other parents were as angry as her. She believed the nativity would be ruined - with parents prepared to flout the new council rules - and teachers and staff put in an impossible position.

"Lots of the parents were very angry and I thought there was going to be a confrontation on Thursday. The school was very supportive, but it was put in a difficult position," she said.

Ms Shiels, who returned to the Capital from the US six years ago, believed the council had no right to impose the ban in the way it had and decided to make a stand. She believed the ban may have contravened European legislation protecting human rights.

"Local government is supposed to be democratic and it’s unhelpful if officials think they can go round the process of schools, parents and teachers without things being properly debated."

Ms Shiels enlisted the help of a solicitor who wrote to the council on her behalf informing them she was seeking an interdict which would lift the ban until it could be reviewed by a judge.

She also managed to secure legal aid for the expected courtroom battle.

The firm of lawyers informed the council that if it did not retract the new regulations Ms Shiels would seek an interdict from the Court of Session lifting any ban on parents taking pictures until a judge had the chance to look at the guidelines and rule on whether they were lawful.

Ms Shiels argued the council’s ban on filming breached parents’ rights under European human rights legislation - and that because the council’s guidelines had been introduced without giving parents sufficient notice they were also unlawful.

Although prepared to continue her fight, Ms Shiels is delighted the council have seen sense in time for Christmas.

Edinburgh Council is now reviewing the procedures which allowed over-zealous education officials to issue guidelines which made the local authority a laughing stock.

The policy of banning video and still photography at school nativity plays was put in place by Roy Jobson, Edinburgh’s director of education.

The council already had a policy which prevented pictures of children from being used on council websites or leaflets without permission from the parents. But Mr Jobson decided it should be extended to apply to all pictures or video.

Councillors now believe Mr Jobson should have referred the changes to a full meeting of the council - and should have realised that such a decision was likely to be controversial or sensitive.