Week of shocks for Mary Poppins and Cicero

10th October 1997 at 01:00
The brave new world of technology hit Downing Street when Bill Gates, the world's richest man, visited the Prime Minister as he launched the National Grid for Learning consultation paper. The Microsoft billionaire was there to lend support to the Pounds 100 million project, but not much else.

Mr Blair had just returned from a triumphant trip to Moscow where he starred in a soap opera and quoted his famous slogan on education yet again, but this time in Russian. A few hours before, British astronaut Michael Foale had dropped gently to Earth from the ill-fated Mir space station to news that Russian schoolchildren no longer dream of a career in space. They'd rather be gangsters or prostitutes, a survey of 1,000 school-leavers discovered.

The week after the Teacher Training Agency took Channel 4 to task for turning a Brookside drug-taking jailbird into a trainee teacher. The agency's plans to launch a Pounds 15 million advertising campaign to makeover the scruffy Sixties image of the profession in a recruitment drive were revealed. "No one forgets a good teacher," is the slogan. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women ,was not that impressed. "There will be a huge credibility gap between adverts and reality," he said.

Reality for some school kids is a pain in the back. A survey to mark National Back Pain Week showed that the average 11 to 12-year-old carries a school bag weighing about 17lb - around 20 per cent of their body weight - and double the recommended amount. Some carried half a hundredweight - 60 per cent of their body weight. Experts claim this places a strain on spines and muscles which will cause pain in adulthood. Lack of classroom desks and lockers, as well as poorly-designed classroom furniture and bags are largely to blame, they said.

And if the poor kids need a holiday to recover, the new caring Government will find its hard edge and keep them in class. David Blunkett is to tackle parents taking advantage of cut-price holidays during term time, which heads say is a growing practice.

As the decision to postpone the appointment of a "drugs tsar" was announced came news that a third of 15-year-old girls smoke regularly; that a 10-year-old had died from drinking vodka; and that teenagers in rural communities are injecting vodka and whisky to achieve a quick high.

A 13-year-old pulled out of Britain's first female boxing match hours before it was due to start because of adverse publicity, while another 13-year-old arrived at St Hilda's College, Oxford, raring to start her maths degree.

Top heads got a wigging from the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference chairman for the rise of unsporting behaviour on their famous fields. Anthony Bird, aged 10, was hauled before a Football Association disciplinary panel for verbally and physically insulting the referee. He was the youngest footballer to face this action. His dad from Armthorpe, Yorkshire, complained that the FA had over-reacted, treating his son like Wimbledon captain Vinny Jones. "He's 10 years old for God's sake."

It's not only youngsters behaving badly, but their parents. Over-enthusiastic parents who support mini-rugby and overhyped coaches are killing the spirit of the game for seven-year-olds, complained Jeremy Guscott, the Bath, England and British Lions centre.

Latin hit the headlines again as translators in the Vatican - where Latin is still the official language - are spicing up its dictionary with 15,000 new words which commentators fear could make Horace and Cicero turn in their graves. Sui ispsius nudator could sound erudite, but it means a stripper.

Back home, the Roman Catholic Church has condemned a primary school sex education pack produced by Healthwise, an independent agency, which tells young children about homosexuality and includes explicit drawings.

The author, Julian Cohen, defended his work, saying children were bombarded with misinformation about sex in the media. It was important they were told the truth.

And a slice of London middle-class life: professional couples are facing an outbreak of a variation on the property buyers' nightmare - "nanny-gazumping". Such is the demand that experienced women are playing families off against each other to win pay and perks undreamt of by Mary Poppins. Average pay for a live-in nanny has risen by more than 20 per cent in the past year and sole use of a BMW and a mobile phone are common demands, say employment agencies in the capital.

Diane Spencer

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