Let them learn to peel spuds

Libby Purves

As any woodworker will tell you, you have to work with what you've got - respect the evidence of how the wood's already growing, work round its knots and cracks, don't use unseasoned stuff or it'll twist. Similarly, look with a cool, critical eye at the modern child and how it prefers to learn.

Last week, it transpired that a three-year old successfully bid pound;8,999 for a Barbie-pink turbo-charged Nissan Figaro. Jack Neal doesn't even have to be in school for another two years, but he can already drop his parents in it via the family laptop. On the same day, however, it was reported by the British Heart Foundation that fewer than half of today's eight to 15-year-olds can boil an egg, under one-third know what to do with a frying pan, with another third unable to make even a salad. Only 58 per cent are familiar with a vegetable peeler, one in 10 is alarmed by the idea of using a wooden spoon and one in 20 could not make a sandwich.

Only the microwave - which looks a bit like a computer - held no fear for them, with 82 per cent happy to use it. I leave the bleaker implications of this to the sci-fi imagination. Frankly, when the power gives out and we are all released into the wild, much of the rising generation is going to have a tough time. Imagine them out in the dark primeval forest, staring at potatoes, wondering where the eezi-peel tab might be, mistaking ponds for screen-savers, and uselessly prodding at knotholes in tree-trunks in the vain belief that they are buttons which will cause a ready-meal to pop out.

On the other hand, if we are abruptly colonised by aliens from Alpha Centauri, it will probably be baby Jack Neal and the kids who will save us.

With a few stabs of the control panel and a riff on their Bluetooth-enabled 3G phones, they will re-programme the invading spaceship's computers to blast the enemy into the fourth dimension and morph their weapons into Barbie-pink Nissan convertibles. In which case, the least we can do is to make our saviours a sandwich afterwards. We know our place, we of the wooden-spoon generation.

As I considered this, imagining the human race evolving giant heads and overdeveloped mouse-wrists, another story surfaced. It would seem from Ofsted's findings that the new citizenship classes are, in a quarter of schools, as dull as hell (I paraphrase). In far more, they were just adequate but often led to vague chats about relationships. The Department for Education and Skills says defensively that lots of new teachers are being trained, and that it has a "positive impact on the curriculum". It would say that.

Since teachers don't seem overkeen to teach this irritating, piously PC government subject and children don't want to learn it, there is only one thing to do: make it 50 per cent practical - the coursework consisting of a real campaign - and 50 per cent a computer game. Let them play SimCity and discover what it is to have to plan for troublesome crowds. Meanwhile, let them in real life demonstrate, agitate, or start a local battle for a playing field, and insist that they fight their way through the ghastly thickets of British bureaucracy. They will find out how it works as they go along. Extra points will be awarded to anyone getting a case (however stupid) all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.

As for the invisible, moral "values" of citizenship which got the Government in such a stew in the first place, the best way to learn those is to experience them in miniature - at a school with elected prefects and a school council with teeth. And forget the constitutional minutiae. Anyone who ever did British Constitution O-level knows very well that listening to droney stuff about "Committees of the Whole House" is wholly unproductive.

I got an A, and I don't remember a word of it. Besides, Tony Blair hasn't even finished re-inventing the Lord Chancellor yet, so why clutter up the poor children's minds?

All you actually need to know about the electoral system, EU, Nato and UN can be conveyed in a couple of half-hours in the week after GCSEs finish, with the aid of a whiteboard and a few jokes. As to the demand that children know "how the economy functions", half of them won't ever understand, and the other half will pick it up as they go along. Go on, unclog the system and free up some time for teaching them to peel potatoes.

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Libby Purves

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