Nostalgia for the 'bad old days'

29th November 1996 at 00:00
When I was a lad we all behaved ourselves in school. The lessons were full of factual information which we learned assiduously. We respected our teachers and we did three hours of homework every night. Nobody ever messed around in class.

In those days anybody who stepped out of line was given the cane. In fact you got caned even if you did not misbehave, just in case. On Sunday we all went to church to pray for forgiveness, albeit for sins we had never committed because we were so perfect.

As a result Britain was the most highly educated and successful nation since the dawn of time. We bestrode the world like a Colossus, led by the most immaculate leaders . . .

I'm sorry, I can't go on with this. Did loads of homework every night? Never messed around? Highly educated and successful? It is complete and utter tripe. I just fancied having a little bask in that warm wave of nostalgia which engulfs the nation.

Education has been criticised throughout this year. The Secretary of State expressed the concern of many universities over "deficiencies in the general education and in the grasp of the English language of the candidates coming to them from schools". One major employer found that the literacy of thousands of newly recruited employees was so poor that they had to lay on special classes and produce their own literacy textbook.

It got worse. The Chief Inspector wrote: "Teachers are, as a rule, uncultured and imperfectly educated." A devastating critique of special needs teaching led to a new Act of Parliament being proposed, because so many special educational needs children were receiving an inadequate education. A senior civil servant wrote a damning report saying that our education system was much poorer than that of our European competitors.

Morality and discipline were also criticised in the press. The Prime Minister described his own school as "the greatest pagan school in Christendom". Another school had to call in the Army as the children had barricaded themselves in. Then there was that dreadful group of pupils who blew off the headteacher's door with explosives.

Oops! I'm sorry. I seem to have got things mixed up. These are all events that actually happened in the "good old days". It was Sir David Eccles in 1960 who reinforced universities' concerns about candidates' use of English. The employer who had to teach thousands of recruits to read and write was the Army in 1943, the even better old days.

The Chief Inspector who called teachers "imperfectly educated" was Mr Holmes in l905. The Act of Parliament demanded for special needs was the 1899 Defective and Epileptic Children Act, while the civil servant who envied Europe was Robert Morant in 1898.

Earlier still, in the fantastically good old days, Gladstone was the prime minister who described 1820s Eton as "pagan", and two companies of soldiers with fixed bayonets were brought in to recapture Winchester in 1818. The pupils of Rugby blew off the headteacher's door with gunpowder in 1797. It all makes the odd V-sign at The Ridings school look like St Francis of Assisi's birthday party.

So why do we nostalge? Why do we allow ourselves to be tormented about the glories of the past? It is no use blaming the mass media. They are simply recognising a primeval drive to believe that the world is doomed, discipline is hopeless and standards are dropping through the floor.

The first reason is the "we'll all be murdered in our beds" explanation. Just as children like to frighten themselves with tales of ghosts and bogeymen, so adults create their equivalent sources of imagined terror. We will grow old and be surrounded by witless youth, incapable of earning a living, coping with adversity, or providing for our frailty.

Come a nuclear disaster, it is believed, today's children would be unable to do what we could all do in our youth, like boil three pairs of wellingtons to make a nourishing stew, carve a Ford Transit van out of a few matchsticks, knit a marquee from old socks. Instead, they would wander round after the devastation looking for the Radio Times and complaining that their tea wasn't ready.

We, meanwhile, would starve to death while they chattered about Gazza's latest hairstyle, mugged the elderly and listened to what was left of their CD collection on their Walkman. It is rubbish, of course. Many of today's young people are full of initiative. They would be just as resourceful as we like to think we were, but then this is not a rational matter. The second reason is that for over a decade some ministers exaggerated criticisms of education to justify their policies. There is no need to reform education if it is doing well, so repeat over and over the message of failure. Then you can ride up on your white horse, snatch a grateful public from the jaws of advancing voracious doom, and get re-elected.

The fact of the matter is that, in this imagined period of disaster, we have had unparalleled political interference in education. Laws have been passed spelling out the tiniest detail of curriculum, assessment, finance, how to fill in a school report or an attendance register. Some politicians would like to prescribe the size of your elbow patches, the length of your skirt and the colour of your Hush Puppies.

Fortunately, people are not entirely fooled. In opinion polls teachers now come higher than they used to in public esteem, up in the premier league with doctors, whereas politicians are in danger of relegation at the bottom of the scumbag league.

This is equally unfair on them. The incompetent or malevolent few have created a bad image for the many good and well-intended politicians.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: "First God made idiots. This was just for practice. Then he made certain public figures."

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