Sell-outs, stereotypes and health and safety truths

When it comes to careers, comedy and conspiracy theories, don't always believe what you read

Think of your family tree. How far back do you have to go to find someone who did an appallingly unsafe, unpleasant job? For me, I skip a generation to my grandfather, a tall, gentle man who was a miner until his doctor told him the job was killing him. Grampa Thomson wanted to be a policeman. His mother told him not to be stupid and, on the day of his 14th birthday, took him down to the Co-op in Cleland to buy a pair of pit boots. In his thirties, he had to fit his rangy frame into an 18-inch tunnel, hacking out the coal with a pickaxe and passing the lumps over his body.

When ill health forced him to give up, he had a young family to support. His next job, at which he excelled to the point of being a local legend, was coach painting. However, his fellow workers insisted that he started on apprentice wages. Surprisingly, although not uncommonly in those times, my grandfather was a Tory.

This made the 1980s quite confusing for me as being Tory, according to all my fellow students, was stupid and wrong. It didn't seem that good an idea to me either, but I found some of the anti-Conservative ranting hard to take, given the views of one of the people I loved most in the world. On television, one of the ranters-in-chief was Ben Elton. Some time ago, he was accused of "selling out" because he collaborated on a couple of musicals with Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Doesn't bother me. He's written some cracking books and a few truly excellent sitcoms apart from ... well, we'll come to that later.

I once knew a principal teacher (PT) who had the perfect method for telling whether or not a fellow teacher had sold out. If they were promoted to a level above him, they had. Simple. To get to the next level would require so much toadying and compromise, you couldn't but sell out. I sometimes wonder if he felt like that about PTs before he was one, but could never be bothered to ask.

I'm not going to go around asserting that anybody has sold out as I know I've sold out, either physically or by intent, on a number of occasions. There was the time in third year when I slagged my pal off behind his back in the hope of entertaining a girl I fancied. You can guess how that went. More recently, despite having ethical reservations about private education, I realised that I would use the sector if it was to be the only effective way of securing the subject choices desired by one of my children. Mind you, it's maybe not selling out when to fail to take the action would require me to sell out on a higher principle of doing the best for my family. (Just keep telling yourself that, Gregor. And don't accept money for tuition.)

Back to Ben Elton. He wrote a sitcom called The Wright Way. It aired recently and I caught the first 15 minutes of episode one. The main character was a health and safety officer who epitomised the Daily Mail idea of what a health and safety officer must be like. Although part of my role at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre is to give out health and safety advice, I might have put up with this stereotyping if it had been remotely funny.

Now, maybe Ben Elton was being very clever. Perhaps he maintained the pathetic stereotype for five and a half episodes, then had a shocking ending where Mr Wright watches as hundreds of people are killed because a ruthless corporation has ignored worker safety, an action condoned by a public brainwashed into believing that safety is all about horizontal playground slides and speed bumps that have to be within a millimetre of specification. A bit like the haunting field of poppies shot at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth. Or maybe he subverted the cliche by showing what happens when you do focus on the trivial - the big issues get ignored. Or maybe the sitcom continued in its lazy, offensive way to reinforce the view that health and safety is a waste of time and money, a view that suits people who think nothing of sending young men into 18-in coal seams, wearing minimal protective equipment, all of it bought by themselves. Maybe he sold out.

I was recently invited by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association to talk about health and safety in science lessons at their annual safety conference. As ever, I was delighted to be asked to talk on the subject because it's an area rife with myths and half truths. It was a lot easier than coal mining and, for me at least, a lot more fun than Ben Elton's sitcom.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Centre.

Gregor Steele is a head of section at the SSERC.

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