First the lies, then the prejudice

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Before the party conferences comes the season of scientific fruitfulness. The British Association, the British Educational Research Association, the British Psychological Society - one after the other, their annual conferences have produced amazing findings for a press and public eager for distraction.

So we now know that beluga whales swim many thousands of miles to congregate in men-only dining clubs 500 metres under the sea, that there are no more than 50 hairy-nosed wombats left in Queensland, and that men with big balls are more promiscuous.

But the scientists have also painted for us a disturbing picture of childhood. Children, it seems, can lie as soon as they can talk (and right-handed parents are more likely to be able to tell they're lying). British children as young as 10 show signs of prejudice against other nationalities, particularly Germans, a prejudice which develops through their teens and then sticks. Many 10 and 11-year-olds are traumatised by violence in videos - far more disturbing to them than sex scenes or bad language - and three out of 10 children in a survey reported to the British Psychological Society had watched Evil Dead, one of the most violent films available.

Children under 18 will not, however, be depraved or corrupted by the scandalous new show of avant-garde British art at the Royal Academy. The RA is taking the unprecedented step of restricting one of its galleries to adults only.

What children really want above all is not health or happiness but money, according to a survey of 1,000 seven to 14-year-olds by Fox Kids television network. And what would they spend it on? Oh, Armani and Nike to be worn while they drift from the purring car to the giant-size television in their luxury mansion.

They will have to kick some expensive habits first. According to depressing figures in a Department of Health report, 11 to 15-year-olds are spending Pounds 100m a year on cigarettes, and three-quarters of those who smoke buy more than 20 a week.

Stories of violence among school-age children continue to shock. Daniel Moore, the 12-year-old son of a police constable, was beaten about the head with bricks and broken bottles by a gang of up to 20 youths and ended up seriously ill in hospital. A schoolboy arsonist who started more than 140 fires was detained for life. Six youths aged 15 to 17 in the self-styled Triad gang whose leader killed a 14-year-old boy with a machete were given detention orders of between three and three-and-a-half years.

But the Government has decided that the military-style boot camps for young offenders opened under the regime of Michael Howard, the last Conservative Home Secretary, are not the answer. Labour ministers consider the experiment, imported from America, an expensive failure. They want to direct resources instead to improving education and skills training in conventional young offenders' institutions.

As the selection committee for the Booker Prize published its shortlist of six novels, the sexual orientation of England's most famous playwright once again came under scrutiny. Katherine Duncan-Jones, fellow of Somerville College, Oxford, and editor of the new Arden edition of Shakespeare's sonnets, thinks the question "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" was addressed not to a dark lady but to a lovely and temperate young man. Professor Stanley Wells disagreed ("I mean, he had a wife").

Anne Barton, professor of English at Trinity College, Cambridge, was less dogmatic: she thought Shakespeare was bisexual.

North of the border, jubilation broke out when an overwhelming majority of Scots voted Yes Yes in the referendum on devolution. Alex Salmond, Scottish Nationalist leader, prophesied that Scotland would be independent in his lifetime (he is 42).

South of the border a village primary in Gloucestershire won a glowing report. An Office for Standards in Education inspector said the 330-pupil primary in Upton St Leonard's was the best school he had seen in 20 years.

He found it, in fact, Kipling (virtually impossible) to Blair (criticise). So says the latest guide to teenage parlance, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, edited by Tony Thorne, published by Bloomsbury next week (Pounds 18.99).

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