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No saint, but an inspiration

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, carried away by the romantic glamour of the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981, described the marriage as a "fairy tale," he spoke more truly than he knew. For fairy tales are not just fables of love and goodness and living happily ever after. They also speak of lust, jealousy, revenge - all the darkest elements in the human soul.

It is this rich brew, perhaps, which explains the great wave of confused but powerful emotion which has washed over the nation since the shocking death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Sceptical adults, struggling to understand their unexpected and ambiguous grief, have been as swept up in it as the children innocently laying flowers outside St James's Palace.

Indeed, children and young people have been one of the most grief-stricken groups in a stunned nation. Toddlers have queued for hours with their parents to add their clumsy signatures to the books of condolence; older children have been mulling over last Sunday's events with their friends, parents and teachers. School assemblies have been forced to tackle the weighty subjects of death, greed and the role of the media; and it seems unlikely that such questions will be buried with Diana's body in the Spencer family vault tomorrow.

On the face of it, Diana's life would seem to have little relevance to the vast bulk of Britain's schoolchildren. A toff who worked in a private kindergarten, married a prince, lived in a palace and wore couture clothes, she inhabited a different world even from middle-class children brought up in the leafy suburbs, let alone the frighteningly large proportions living below the poverty line.

Yet her brutal death has united Britons of all ages, races and sexualities - with the young, the black, the Asian and the gay well represented among the mourners queuing to pay their last respects. Her concern for the needy and sick, her almost single-handed rehabilitation of Aids patients from their position beyond the pale, her support for the homeless, struck a chord with those who felt themselves excluded from mainstream British society.

In a culture saturated with media images, she became a positive role model, demonstrating how a young woman with few formal qualifications overcame many of her problems and reinvented herself as an international superstar.

Adults who saw her attempts to control her own future as manipulative or phoney have found themselves having to rethink their assumptions - not least, those concerning education. How did a woman with so few of the qualifications which our system values so highly become perhaps the most well-known figure in the world, capable of changing public perceptions on humanitarian issues with a simple hug for an Aids patient or a short walk through a foreign minefield?

She was not, of course, a saint. The famous BBC Panorama interview was a thinly-veiled opportunity for revenge on her estranged husband and in-laws during which (like her husband) she admitted having committed adultery. Human beings do such things, as children growing up in the real world discover at some point: it is at the heart of such dilemmas that real moral choices are made and lived with.

Britain's first real icon to have lived fast, died young, will not go away, and nor will these issues. It is right that pupils should play a full part in them rather than merely accepting what they hear or read.

Children - of all classes, races and abilities - are the hope of the nation. In some sense, Diana recognised that. The sad truth is that they have now lost one of their most effective champions in a nation which is said to prefer its dogs. It is up to us to make good their loss.

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