Invasion of the data boffins

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Yet another Education Bill is upon us, in time for you to digest before your Christmas turkey. In seasonal spirit, our Government is addressing the pressing problems of poverty with a new social exclusion unit while at the same time cutting benefits for lone parents.

Teachers could face more upheavals with proposals by the Funding Agency for Schools to introduce a shift system for pupils, shorter holidays and, that old chestnut, the four-term year. Another perennial is the return of the head-louse. The creatures are becoming more resistant to pesticide-based shampoos, so it's back to the nit comb; but not the nit nurse, as widespread cuts have reduced their numbers.

Nursing is considered to be more dangerous than policing or working in security, according to Health and Safety Executive figures. More than a third were attacked on duty compared with one in four police and security officers.

Although their job is less hazardous, teachers heard this week that their children are more likely to develop leukaemia than those of parents in other occupations. An Oxford researcher found that people working with children were exposed to more infections because children are more susceptible to diseases than adults. Children develop leukaemia, it is thought, as a result of some unknown infection carried by their parents.

More gloomy research showed that one in 10 young children suffer from severe depression and have suicidal feelings. However some tots are finding solace in the shopping habit. "Pester power" is increasing, according to a Saatchi and Saatchi report, which notes parents are being lobbied by their children on the types of goods they buy, from breakfast cereals, chocolates - and even cars. And it can only get worse as they get older and more manipulative.

But they can't be all bad as kids took starring roles in the launch of the logo for Britain's six-month European Union presidency in London's Waterloo station. Thirty-two children aged between eight and 11 from various countries designed 15 stars representing the member states. Tony Blair tried to greet the artists in their own language, but confessed to stopping short at five.

The PM's right-hand man, Peter Mandelson, also courted kiddie-power when he announced he was setting up a "junior board" of schoolchildren to advise him on the contents of the millennium dome taking shape in the Greenwich mud. Francis Maude, the Tory culture spokesman, condemned the youth council as "a load of blather".

The Minister without Portfolio retorted that the 21st century sport surfball would have a special appeal for the young. Computer wizards, however, are said to be still working on its invention.

Perhaps in 24 months' time children will be satiated with the marvels of modern technology as pollsters have found that nearly half prefer the company of their computers to their friends. A Nottingham Trent University psychologist said information was becoming the drug of the Nineties. "Have we become fact-fanatics and info-junkies?" he asked, adding there was a fine line between having enough information and getting too much.

Mark Griffiths, author of the survey, thought modern education drove children towards this addiction without having the power to stop them falling into an "abyss of data smog".

The info-junkie trend would appear to have passed by the University Challenge team from New Hall, Cambridge. The four from the all-women's college achieved the lowest ever score in the contest with 35 points to red-brick Nottingham University's 335.

An eight-year-old refugee from Montserrat would have done better, moaned a right-wing commentator, who made a similar point to the above-mentioned don: the invasion of CD-Roms and computers means pupils have a vast disorganised access to information "but they have no knowledge, because that can only exist when the information is organised and understood," he said.

However, the shortcomings of our education system are not deterring French youths (one in four under-25s is out of work) from seeking a better life here. They are taking an intensive induction course in Anglo-Saxon culture in an "English" pub in southern France. There they can sample the delights of warm beer, playing pool, watching Four Weddings and a Funeral and Trainspotting, before crossing the Channel.

This trend would not only send Joan of Arc into a spin; but also the Academie Francaise, guardian of the purity of the French language, which is fighting a rearguard action against the march of the overwhelmingly anglo-phone Internet - or l'Internet. Bonnes vacances!

A footnote: expensive trainers are bad for your feet. Parents be warned.

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