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Toby Banks

Young people today

The latest revelations of junior illiteracy should be treated with caution. Prophets of doom have been banging on about this for years, and there is little evidence that things are getting worse. There have always been children who can't spell 'car' at seven, and the vast majority are able to do so by the time they leave school. The first law of British politics is that 'standards' continually fall: always have done, always will. I have never felt any temptation to join in this chorus of alarm - at least, not until now. Maybe I'm getting old, but I can't help feeling that our kids really aren't being set the right example.

A new survey shows that most teenage schoolchildren drink about three pints a week. That's right, three pints a week. Maybe my memory is playing tricks, but when I was at school, and a pound was still a pound, the pub opposite was packed, lunchtime and evenings; and the only time anybody drank less than three pints a day was when they couldn't fight their way through the mass of school blazers between them and the bar.

And what are we to make of David Roe, the English teacher who told his class to shout out 'wanker' and other rude words while he wrote them on the blackboard? Surely, if teachers have to use valuable lesson time teaching 14-year olds basic swearwords and obscenities, it is a clear sign that role models are failing in their responsibilities.

We are used to pop stars and footballers lecturing us about smoking, drink, drugs and sex. However, at the root of the problem are modern parents. Misguided people like the Guests of Edinburgh, who have 'taken a stand' by getting rid of their television, and are now a cause celebre after refusing to buy a licence. A typical evening chez Guest involves Simon (12) playing violin, Nicholas (15) on cello and mother Alison on piano.

Mr and Mrs Guest claim that their sons are quite happy about this, and who's to say they are not? Quite possibly they will turn out as normal well-balanced adults - we'll have to wait and see.

The Guest cult reportedly has a million followers already, and the press are working hard to convert more parents to the cause. One potential recruit, writing to Sun agony aunt Deidre, despairs of her son, who 'is only happy when he's given something, or going to a football match'. She has tried sending him to bed, stopping his pocket money, preventing him from watching TV or going out, and various other punishments, yet still he is unhappy. Deidre sympathises, and recommends Parentline.

As with all radical experiments, there are potential dangers here. Inevitably, other important areas of life will be neglected. By all means let kids collect stamps, play violins and so on if they wish, but they should be expected to show a basic knowledge of traditional subjects. What kind of a school life awaits a child who can't swear and smoke, or display a normal healthy interest in TV, sex, drink, drugs, Nintendo, shoplifting, vandalism, etc? Who will take responsibility for the resulting bloodshed?

Another study revealed that teenagers believe people who drive big cars to be more intelligent than those who drive small ones. Support for this depressing theory comes from a police officer recently accused of harassing a man after a gay festival. The officer's representative explained that he had been upset at the time, because he hadn't been allocated a bigger car. This can now be added to other officially recognised syndromes, including the psychological strain caused by sitting in riot vans, and 'post-traumatic stress' (suffered by police after shooting people).

This sensitivity extends to public relations too. Certainly, nobody who was present at the Bow Street police station 'fun day' with its truncheon race through Covent Garden could accuse the police of neglecting their image. After the eighties riots, the home office even looked into the possibility of a friendly looking truncheon for use in sensitive areas (geographical areas, that is). This is an idea whose time has now come. American-style nightsticks (as used during the angry scenes at the Grand National) are now to be joined by telescopic 'ASP' truncheons, which cause 'bouncing trauma', a condition which affects the person holding the handle rather less than the one at the other end.

If all this sounds a bit, well, heavy, don't worry. Home secretary Kenneth Clarke has resisted police demands for side-handled batons (as tested on Rodney King in LA) because they look 'too aggressive'. And thorough market research will be done on the ASP before it is introduced, to make sure it has the full support of inner-city populations. At least, I assume that is what the Metropolitan Police mean when they say they will be 'carrying out tests this summer'. So if you happen to be randomly selected as a guinea pig, be sure to let them know what you think. Policing is a two-way thing - it can't work without your co-operation.

Finally, on the subject of discipline, a postscript to last month's comments on corporal punishment. Anybody still under the illusion that good behaviour can be beaten into children should consider the examples of Bruce Dickenson and John Selwyn Gummer. Dickenson describes the regime at his expensive school as 'Whacko! Mass floggings everywhere....' Upon leaving he set a poor example to younger boys by wreaking havoc around the world as a member of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden.

John Selwyn Gummer (later an outspoken member of the Church of England's general synod and now Secretary of State for Agriculture and Fisheries) went straight to Cambridge. Freed from the constraints of his school days (and funded by profits from his father's Pulpit Monthly magazine), he soon made up for lost time, earning the nickname 'Rowdy Gum-Gum'. Varsity Magazine reported that the former union president had been fined for his antics, and quotes one member as saying: 'This had to happen. Gummer has been misbehaving in the Chamber all term, and thoroughly deserves this imposition.' It is interesting to reflect that despite his lucrative garden pond arrangements and all the other perks of office, Gummer's fine remains unpaid.

I suspect that certain hardened cases are beyond redemption. Even if they are fined at rates corresponding to their income, as magistrates have now been instructed to do, they simply refuse to pay. I fear that birching would only make troublemakers like Gummer rebel more.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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