Mr Straw's unwanted present;Comment;Opinion

16th January 1998 at 00:00
My significant other recently caused some bemusement to youthful festive visitors by enquiring if they knew of the Three Ages of Man (sic). (Answer: in his first age he believes in Santa. In his second age he doesn't believe in Santa. And in his third age he is Santa). That moment of transition is not always incident free. The following Santa story, perhaps with some significance for our times, appeared in the pre-Christmas press.

A small boy was taken by his mum to meet Santa in a department store. A little later in the afternoon they visited a second department store, where - lo and behold - Santa was again on duty. Suspicious as to how the rubicund old man managed to be in two places simultaneously, our mini-hero enquired if he were indeed real, venturing a probing hand to discover whether the cotton wool beard was genuine. Whereupon Santa clouted him over the ear, and mum promptly announced legal proceedings against both store and Santa on grounds of assault.

Obviously Santas are no longer employed for their kindly patience and benign tolerance. Mothers - and fathers, too - are increasingly ready to hit back by one means or another, as teachers are only too aware. The need for personal safety among teachers was one recommendation of the Cullen report, and new courses in self-defence and self-assertiveness are springing up all over Scotland.

Of course, it is never easy to be a parent. The recent discomfiture heaped by the press on Home Secretary Jack Straw in the wake of his son's alleged drug dealing illustrates graphically the perils of parenthood in the public eye. Nor is young William a stranger to controversy. His father angered Labour circles by sending him to the fashionable Pimlico School in Westminster, rather than to the secondary school near his Lambeth home.

The minister chosen to chair the Government's committee on the family and parenting has, of course, carried a personal crusade against youth crime into the Crime and Disorder Bill, with threats of fines to parents of unruly children. As a former children's panel member I well recall the common scenario when a tired, downtrodden little mother accompanied by a hulking, criminally inclined teenage son, pleaded with panel members to "do something" about him, for she "couldnae". The father - if there was one - was usually absent, attendance at panels being then considered women's work.

Perhaps it's not surprising that she "couldnae". A six-year-old has just, after many warnings, been expelled from his Edinburgh primary school for swearing at the head. (Predictably, the parents of this juvenile trooper "hit out" at the authorities for "abandoning him".) Fining inadequate parents used to be considered by the chattering classes to be one of those extraordinary ideas which characterise excessively right-wing Conservatives with views deemed attributable to Attila the Hun. No longer. New Puritanism stalks the land, interpreting the "people's will" (probably on the whole correctly) with measures proposed that mainstream Conservatism never dared seriously to consider. Single mothers will work or subsist on reduced benefit. Social control will be exercised through single-parent hostels. Incompetent parenting will be punished, presumably by yet further erosion of those same benefits.

Perhaps, however, the Straw affair will induce a little healthy humility among those in government who, like Cromwell and his Roundheads, would carry all before them. In our children we all tend to be vulnerable, and most of us might be tempted to think "there but for the grace of God".

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