Toy with a bionic Barbie at your peril

5th December 1997, 12:00am
Diane Spencer


Toy with a bionic Barbie at your peril
As the Government struggles to attract new recruits to the teaching profession and doles out miserly sums to cash-strapped education authorities, we can ask: "What's new?" Well, student protests for a start. The subdued demo against imposing university fees caused one commentator to recall the heady days of 1968 when the flower of youth occupied the London School of Economics, marched on Downing Street, and chucked cobblestones at les flics in Paris.

But German undergraduates evoked the spirit of Danny the Red by taking to the streets and bringing universities to a virtual standstill in protest at Chancellor Helmut Kohl's plans to introduce tuition fees, cut interest-free loans and, above all, reduce the number of years spent studying. Apparently the tradition of the eternal student, beloved of turn-of-the-century operettas, is not entirely dead as, on average, they spend seven years at university.

Yet an estimated 10,000 Germans are studying in Britain and 8,000 in the United States, where there is news of a new discipline gaining ground: White Studies. The aim is to dislodge the well-established view in America that whites are "the norm" and that they "transcend the identity and race debate", explained Annalee Newitz, a Berkeley scholar.

Intelligent toys are another transatlantic invention being developed at the Learning Tools of the Future project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Programmable Lego bricks, called crickets, can communicate with each other as well as with computers, video cameras and televisions. So will toyboxes of the future be full of talking Tiggers, Teletubbies and Barbies?

At least that sounds more wholesome than an inter-active computer game which awards points for committing murder, arson, drug-smuggling and car theft. To the horror of police and politicians, who fear it will incite violence, Grand Theft Auto has been given a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification to be sold in the high street.

Its release coincides with fresh evidence showing that youngsters are affected by watching violence on television. A survey of 500 parents found that a quarter said their children behaved in an anti-social way after watching the likes of Power Rangers and Gladiators.

Perhaps older children will be turned on to politics by a new character in the science fiction comic 2000 AD: B.L.A.I.R.1, a bionic leader whose mind is controlled by an artificial intelligence relay called Doctor Spin. The superhero has the strength of 50 men - or 25 John Prescotts - and kills the opposition with a death-dealing grin. William Hague survives, to appear in a forthcoming issue with "666" tattooed on his head.

Downing Street is said to be amused, which is more than you can say for Baroness Brigstock and Roger Scruton. Her ladyship, former High Mistress of St Paul's Girls School in London, condemned City slicker Nicola Horlick and the Spice Girls as unsuitable role models for today's young women. She described as "tyrannical" the super-successful City image and the all-girl band's notion of Girl Power.

Professor Scruton didn't think much of the Spice Girls either, but he reserved even more contempt for Oasis, whom he described as talentless, mindless oafs. But then the former Cambridge don does prefer Mozart and fox-hunting.

So we turn to this week's top of the precocious tots: Dineshi Nirgunananthan. Aged three, she has just joined Mensa; aged two she began learning French; she reads like a 10-year-old and excels at piano, swimming and ballet. Her father said: "I've no idea where she gets it from. She's the cleverest in the family and she's only three. It's frightening." Quite.

Four brainy lads from Manchester grammar with a galaxy of GCSE-starred grades behind them have launched a company to publish super-swot guides for nervous exam candidates, blending knowledge with rat-like cunning, as part of a Young Enterprise scheme.

Aspiring swots, refugees from the volcano-ravaged island of Montserrat, in the Caribbean, are so disappointed with British educational standards and discipline that they are attending Saturday classes, much to the delight of The Sun as this gave its leader writer another chance to attack trendy teaching methods.

One thing British children come top in, unfortunately is in drug-taking. Four out of 10 teenagers have tried cannabis and 13 per cent have taken highly-addictive amphetamines - double that of other European countries, and second only to the US, according to a study by the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands.

A seasonal study by the Health Education Authority showed that a million men and 190,000 women get drunk at least once a week, and about three-quarters of 16 to 24-year-olds admitted to binges. A third thought getting drunk was "part of the English way of life".

We'd better not drink to that.

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