Sarcasm is out now, but which generation is better off?

20th July 2007 at 01:00
It's only thanks to occasional visits to schools that most children's writers keep abreast of changes. But I hadn't realised what a sea-change had taken place till I was walking along a primary school corridor beside the headteacher.

He was, not unusually, grumbling on about some tiresome new slew of paperwork keeping him from his main purpose when a child of six or seven came round the corner, one of her shoelaces trailing. I was just thinking back to how, when I was in school, the mere sight of the head coming towards us would set our hearts fluttering with unease. Would we be stopped and questioned? Why were we out of class between the bells? Whatever the answer, we would routinely be sharply ordered not to dawdle and sent on our way.

How times have changed. This child stuck out her hand like a traffic cop, bringing the head skidding to a halt. He looked down. She pointed to her trailing shoelace and, still grumbling on about the exigencies of administration, he dropped to his knee, tied her lace into a neat double bow and patted her off on her way.

"That was a confident child," I said as we went round the corner. He stared at me, baffled. "What child? He hadn't even noticed the encounter.

When did our children come to believe that most of the adults around them were out to help and support them? If I was asked, "What are you up to?" in school, I sensed a trap someone hair-triggered to take offence at my work or behaviour and grab the chance to exert authority.

This change is the result of the great shift in emphasis from "teaching the subject" to "teaching the child". Over the years, all those who couldn't adjust to seeing the young people sitting in front of them as at least as important as the work on the board behind them have gradually retired or left the profession.

I can't forget Miss Fletcher, my French teacher, telling us irritably: "As if we weren't behind enough! And now I've been deputed to spend this lesson giving you careers advice! I'll give you careers advice... Find out what you enjoy doing most and then look for someone who'll pay you to do it. Now, open your French books, please, and turn to page 47." I shouldn't think Miss Fletcher would have wanted to shift her emphasis from irregular verbs to sympathetic nurture.

No one goes into teaching now unless they are prepared at least to pretend they enjoy the company of young people. Sarcasm's out. So is humiliation. Up to a point, so even is losing your temper. Scathing remarks about a child and her family might still be a staple of staffroom chat, but the pupils are generally safe from having their characters dissected and found wanting alongside the more legitimate criticism of their behaviour.

Is there a downside? It's not for me to say. Sometimes when I see young people sitting idly on trains, leaving off staring out of the window only to pick up their mobiles and text some inanity, I think back to the stinging remarks I remember enduring. "The trouble with you, young lady, is that you have an almost totally unfurnished mind and are too ignorant to know it... Who's taking this class, Anne? You, who know almost nothing? Or me?... By the time I was your age, I had read Milton."

I'm glad teaching was the way it was when I was at school (no doubt the young today are equally glad it isn't). But as for which of us was more fortunate, I wouldn't know. If I did, I probably wouldn't dare say.

The author's latest comedy for 7- to 10-year-olds is Ivan The Terrible (Egmont)

Anne Fine

was Children's Laureate, 2001-2003

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