God's on the Internet, but where are the volunteers?

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Tony Blair may be able to win elections by a landslide but he cannot, it seems, secure an honorary doctorate from his old university of Oxford. The reason suggested for failing to recommend his name was that the "timing" was wrong - perhaps a reference to current discussions with the Government about ending the university's subsidies for individual tuition.

The very core of that individual tuition - the weekly essay - also seemed to be under threat. Dr Ngaire Woods, a roller-skating, free-thinking don from New Zealand, has been encouraging her politics students at University College Oxford to make corporate-style presentations instead. "In what kind of work would you walk into a room and read out your argument from several pages of A4?" she asks.

It sounds as if she's attempting to prepare her students for a lucerative (sic) career as filthy capatilists (sic), which is how they might spell those words if they did have to write essays. In an attack on "complacency and self-congratulation at Oxford", Bernard Richards, a recently retired don, has listed those among the 142 most commonly misspelt words in first-year exams by English language and literature students. Writing in the Oxford Review, he partly blamed the influence of "professional linguists", who take a relativist view of correctness. The editor of the magazine, of course, said he mainly blamed schools.

A more encouraging tale from the city of dreaming spires comes from Headington School for girls, where headteacher and governors were astonished to discover that a former history teacher at the school had left it her fortune of Pounds 1.2 million. Not a wealthy woman by birth, Celia Marsh was said to have a surgeon friend in Edinburgh who had invested her money well in the 1970s and it had just growed and growed.

From dreaming spires to, er, screaming spires. At Royal Holloway College, the red-brick confection outside Egham in Surrey, horrible things have been happening to cats. The remains of two, neatly skinned, have been found in slop bins at halls of residence. The college is investigating.

More exhibitionist ways of making ends meet are reported from the Midlands, where students are said to be doing the "full monty" to pay off their mounting debts. One Birmingham University student reports that his only expenses are baby oil, whipped cream, a Jamiroquai CD and a fresh banana.

A 14-year-old genius who can write only two words a minute in an illegible scrawl has become the youngest ever student to win a place at Cambridge University. Alexander Faludy, who is so dyslexic he has to dictate his essays into a tape recorder, is to study theology and history of art at Peterhouse College. The son of two teachers from Hampshire, he was bullied at his state primary school. When he later went to Milton Abbey, a small boarding school in Dorset, his housemaster's wife found him creeping around its buildings because he thought he would be tripped up at every corner.

Bullying seems to be the main reason for children playing truant, according to a survey commissioned by the Observer and Short Change, a BBC television programme. And many parents don't seem to know their children are skipping school. One boy said: "My parents aren't there because they work, so I just go home and watch the telly all day".

That can't be quite the kind of working parent the Government is anxious to create. Education Secretary David Blunkett spoke out last week against feckless parents who failed to set an example to their young. The Government has a new mission to make parents more aware of their role and responsibilities, he said.

GPs, too, are to do their bit towards improving morals. Underage girls who ask their doctor or family planning clinic for contraceptives are to be given a lecture on the dangers of promiscuity, health minister Tessa Jowell has said.

Teenage Filmstars, a pop group unearthed by The Sunday Times that likes to record its songs backwards, turns out to have been born in the playground of the London Oratory, a strict boys' grant-maintained school much beloved of prime ministers. Its lead singer, The Shed by name, left before sitting his GCSEs ("Maybe I've got a problem with authority"). His fellows, aka Sister Anne, Jet Powers and Dean Angel, are still studying for their A-levels.

Fewer young people are doing voluntary work than seven years ago and those who do are devoting less time to it, according to a survey from the Institute for Volunteering Work. And they're more likely to do it because of the skills they'll learn rather than through altruism.

But the search for God is not dead. Geoffrey Smith, a canon at Bradford Cathedral in Yorkshire, thinks He might be the Internet. "When we log on to the World Wide Web," he writes in the Crucible, "(are) we..in some way being afforded a glimpse into the mind of God?" From his own regular use of the net, he says, "there is nothing it does not know".

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