Family pack needs reshuffle

4th December 1998 at 00:00
"Can we," asked my grandson, "play Happy Families?" A fashionable request, though more catchily put than Jack Straw managed.

It is easy to see how tempting it is to use the old card game as inspiration for family policies: a pastime for several generations to join in, with good visual clues for beginner readers. But it is safer not to pursue the imagery too far. Each character, you will remember, is defined by relationship to the traditional occupation of the father-figure. How politically incorrect can you get?

Take Mrs Chalk, the Teacher's Wife. Although she may well have started off in the same profession as her husband, she would be wearing the chalk-dust in her own right rather than as an appendage. And one of them would certainly have taken early retirement. They both hope that the young Chalks go for the management course after their degrees, rather than the teacher-training one.

As for Mr Field the Farmer, you can be sure that his children are shaking the straw out of their wellies as they head for town, and that his wife is running a B and B, while the old man wonders if beef will really come back.

A similar storyline may engulf Mr Bun the Baker and Mr Green the Grocer, fighting to survive against the supermarkets - where their wives will end up on the check-outs unless they studied for qualifications before becoming a card-game wife. No doubt Master Bun and Miss Green are working hard for their GNVQs if they want to succeed in retail.

The dilemma for politicians lies in trying to reassert the old certainties of family life when traditional structures of work are dissolving, and demanding completely different career and lifestyles.

All the futurists tell us that the curriculum will have to equip young people with flexibility, as well as computer literacy, if they are to be able to switch careers every time technology substitutes new occupations for old.

Master Parcel, the Postman's Son, and his peer group may get the message, but are employers and institutions any readier than the Government to apply it?

The latest warning comes from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which has just published Redefining Schooling as a follow-up to its Redefining Work debate. Valerie Bayliss's discussion paper concludes that the decision-makers show less understanding than many educators of the need to be "visibly part of the new world rather than the old".

The core of her argument focuses on mismatches between school and the world outside, and crucially, between a curriculum still based in 19th-century concepts "and the need to equip young people effectively to manage their lives in the 21st century".

It is a persuasive document, though I fear the Government is not ready to take the advice to turn its approach to the curriculum and assessment on its head. Logic may say that bolt-on ICT is not enough to transform the national curriculum when it is revised in 2000, but political instinct whispers that trimming and tweaking is what we will get. The old standards will still triumph over new competencies, and employers' attitudes will clinch it.

No sooner had I read the RSA's exhortations about flexible education to match flexible work than a new report on "super-ageism" in the workplace appeared. You don't just have to be 50-plus to lose out now; recruiters' eyes may glaze over if you admit to 39, or 26, if it is the "wrong" age for the job.

Graduate recruits older than 22 might not fit in; years of experience may seem threatening on retraining schemes; young managers don't want older recruits. Mature graduates and career-switchers may be ahead of the market.

Such unreconstructed attitudes present tougher obstacles to the Doctor's and Plumber's Daughters than to their brothers, because raising a family could take you off the promotion ladder when your male peers are climbing to the top, but on again when the men are faltering. Employment policies mired in the new (or old) ageism ignore these key differences in career patterns.

Margaret Jay's Women's Unit would do better to grip this issue than to enrol Miss Spice the Pop Singer, as a role model. Family-friendly policies are only a start. Families and work are far more complicated now, and reshuffling the same old pack won't help them to coexist happily.

Surely no one now would seriously promote such an uncool, back-dated vision of nuclear family life and work?

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