God save our rapacious tweens

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Half-term and Hallowe'en are over, bonfire night's just gone and Christmas is to come.

No sooner do teachers get back to school than they are besieged with drug-horror stories, a gloating chief inspector of schools and further proof of Britain's class-ridden society. Last Wednesday's National Stress Awareness Day was well timed.

A charming Hallowe'en story from Ireland: Mary Hanafin, a Fianna Fail MP, said she was trying to change a medieval law which, in theory, could jail children for a year if they dressed up as witches. That'll teach them to trick or treat.

But the pumpkin fest, an increasingly popular American import, was overshadowed this year by the horrors of the disco blaze in Gothenburg, Sweden, in which at least 60 teenagers, mostly immigrants, died. Arson was ruled out.

Fortunately, there were no casualties when arsonists torched Abraham Moss High School in Manchester last year. Pupils' appeal to the Prime Minister paid off as the school secured a Pounds 1 million windfall for rebuilding half the classrooms destroyed in the blaze.

Teachers, however, are still smarting at Chris Woodhead's windfall. The chief inspector added insult to injury by citing his 34 per cent pay increase as a fine example of performance-related pay - anathema to the National Union of Teachers.

Maths has been hailed as the new rock'n'roll, what with two Fields medals (the equivalent of Nobel prizes) won by British mathematicians this year; the popularity of books such as Fermat's Last Theorem; and the film Good Will Hunting with a mathematical genius as hero.

Had these high-flown academics graduated from Bradford University, they would have had do so without the uplifting sound of the National Anthem at their degree ceremonies. God Save the Queen is banned because the patriotic lyric is no longer applicable to a multicultural society, ruled senior academics on the advice of the Association of University Teachers. Classical music is deemed more appropriate. The Daily Telegraph was horrified.

Even worse, it's sex, drugs, etc at an even earlier age. American researchers say kids are teenagers at 10. The "tweens", an age group between childhood and adolescence is the fastest growing advertising market.

Another shock, middle-class children are nearly twice as likely to use illegal drugs as those from poorer families, according to a Glasgow University study in a week which saw a seven-year-old handing in a package of heroin to his teacher at a Stirling primary school to save his mother from it.

Ecstasy, the so-called designer recreational drug, has been given a hard time by The Lancet for causing long-term brain damage in frequent users. Sombre stuff.

If all this modern living is too much, you could volunteer for a projected Channel 4 series on Victorian life. First you have to be a "lower middle-class family" open to the challenge and discomfort of existing for three months without electricity, an inside bathroom and other modern comforts.

And you'll need to be eager to explore the behaviour of the times, such as firmer discipline for children and men never doing the housework. What's new? It's enough to make you reach for that phial of laudanum.

Diane Spencer

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