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Arnold's World

I have been invited to appear in a television sitcom - not on screen, it's true, but in the studio audience. I declined. Quite honestly, I wouldn't be very good at it. I am not a laugher. Ho-ho and he-he-he simply aren't in my vocabulary. On very special occasions I do emit an embarrassing grunt which could, at a pinch, be classified as a guffaw but fortunately it doesn't happen too often - after all, it's not every day of the week that Mr Portillo's election result is announced.

I am not an unhappy person. When it comes to kittens or warm woolly mittens or snowflakes that fall on my nose and eyelashes, I can glow inwardly with the best of you. However, laughter - "the crackling of thorns under a pot" - is not necessarily the same thing as happiness.

In fact, although happiness is in short supply, there is an abundance of laughter. And it must be having a damaging effect on children. They are kept in hysterics - manacled in mirth - from the Big Breakfast until the last stand-up comic does his last laboured gag on Channel 4 - which is about the time the dawn chorus chips in with its own peculiar brand of canned cachinnation.

The world manifestly isn't a funny place, but children are being badgered into believing it to be so. They'll end up as deprived as the Cheshire Cat who was eventually reduced to nothing more than an inane grin. It's as if today's children are doomed to spend their formative years being pursued by Diddymen wielding tickling sticks, when all they really want is to collect postage stamps, nurse their dolls, shampoo their Davy Crockett hats, read Enid Blyton or whatever else it was that we did in those blissfully sombre days of our own childhood.

Some teachers are making a brave stand against this general trend. There is, for example, the heartening story of the school in Berkshire that abolished Christmas celebrations because the staff there reasoned that it would interfere with pupils' studies: the coming of the Lord quite rightly took second place to the anticipated coming of an OFSTED team.

I've heard of one school that has already issued dire warnings of the consequences that will befall any pupil foolhardy enough to play a prank on April 1. There are also schools which assiduously ignore Comic Relief or, if he dared enter the gates, would have Pudsey slapped in irons.

In a world that's determined to make merry, schools can still provide a much-needed oasis of glumness, gloom and quiet desperation. Successive education ministers have done their bit to rid schools of joie de vivre, but ultimately it's up to teachers to set a suitably sober tone.

As is the case with undertakers, warders on Death Row, the cast of EastEnders, or spokespersons on BSE, we do not take kindly to the spectacle of a smiling teacher. It's as unnerving as catching sight of a vicar with a guitar or a bunch of Cabinet Ministers strutting their less than funky stuff at the Brit Awards.

The profession, I am happy to report, seem to be well aware of this. According to a survey carried out by psychologists at Worcester University,teachers are rated among the most miserable workers in Britain. It's an achievement of which they should feel proud. I only hope it doesn't bring a smile to their lips.

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