Sweet sorrows and Mars bars

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
Whatever happened to Back to Basics? John Major's "big idea" of 1993 died, unofficially, on New Year's Day when the News of the World told a breathless public about Tim Yeo's illegitimate baby.

News of the environment minister's extra-marital affair led to the Government hastily dropping the notion that Back to Basics was a moral crusade. The Leader of the House, Tony Newton, told a baffled House of Commons: "Our concern is with raising standards in education, strengthening the fight against crime and above all with strengthening the economy."

As the moral panic which began with the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993 turned into a Tory panic in 1994, fed by a spate of sexual and financial scandals, the then Education Secretary John Patten briefly shone like a beacon in the gathering murk.

A truly God-fearing Catholic (and, more to the point, happily married), he was able to continue to preach the importance of schools ("must not be value-free zones") and the family to children's moral welfare. But headteachers drew the line at his attempts to enforce the 50-year-old requirement that schools should hold daily acts of Christian worship. A survey by the National Association of Head Teachers in May found 87 per cent of secondary heads and 65 per cent of primary heads believed they could not obey the law, either because they had no space or because of the growing godlessness of teachers, parents - and children themselves. Even the Bishop of Ripon joined in the dissent.

Patten's views on sex were also aired, in March, when news broke of children at a Leeds primary school being given frank answers by a nurse to their questions about oral sex and "Mars bar parties". The Education Secretary declared himself "incensed" and threatened to crack down on sex education. Governors criticised both him, and the media (which had a field day), warning schools would restrict or even halt sex education lessons for fear of being pilloried.

Patten was not the only one who expressed outrage on matters of sex and sexuality, however. Gus John, director of education in the left-wing borough of Hackney, led the condemnation of primary head Jane Brown, after it emerged she had turned down a chance to take children to the Royal Opera House version of Romeo and Juliet, on the grounds that the story was "heterosexist". An inquiry into her action, which had won support from local teachers and the gay community, has still not concluded.

While ministers (either by design or accident) focused public attention on sex and morality the Government refused to act on calls to regulate outdoor activity centres to protect children's physical welfare. Worries over these centres' safety record reached a peak early this month when Peter Kite, the owner of the St Alban's outdoor centre, was jailed for the manslaughter of four pupils, who died when their canoes capsized in Lyme Bay, Dorset, last year. The Government has repeatedly rejected statutory regulation, despite pleas from the trial judge and the relatives and friends of the dead teenagers.

While 1994 has been a year relatively free from tragedy, schools' vulnerability to violent attacks by determined intruders was illustrated in March when a man burst into a maths class at Hall Garth comprehensive in Middlesbrough and stabbed three pupils, killing 12-year-old Nicola Conroy. The entire school mourned her loss.

The gloom felt by many teachers about their 2.9 per cent pay rise was not dispelled by confirmation that they are working harder than ever. In March, an authoritative survey on workload by the School Teachers' Review Body suggested the profession was full of workaholics with one in two heads and one in ten teachers putting in a 60-hour week.

In June, The TES reported that men were increasingly turning their backs on teaching, with women forming two-thirds of new entrants. The gender gap led one member of the General Teaching Council in Scotland to worry that boys would lack role models in schools. Perhaps, the real danger is not that schools are becoming "value-free", but male-teacher-free zones.

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