Why 130 million can't attend

11th December 1998 at 00:00
As we approach Christmas, it is sobering to learn that poverty prevents some 130 million children around the world from going to school. UNICEF, the United Nation's Children's fund, reckons Pounds 4 billion is needed: not a lot in the scale of things.

Yet more depressing: 300,000 children, some as young as eight, are in active combat in government forces or armed rebel groups, and the number is rising, say human rights organisations. No childhood for them.

Even in Britain there are signs that kids are growing up faster with proposals backed by the Government for identity cards for children from 12 upwards in a bid to curb under-age drinking, gambling and smoking. CitizenCard, a non-profit-making company, will issue the Pounds 5 cards with the support of retailers, betting shops and tobacco firms. "No ID, no sale" is the slogan.

Dire warnings from the Health Education Authority in another assault on teenagers' lifestyles during the party season. One in seven will have unsafe sex while drunk, claims the HEA - and in a Pounds 220,000 campaign urges young people to take a condom to parties and drink moderately.

Another blow for hedonism: Ecstasy, the clubber's favourite recreational drug, could trigger long-term damage to vital brain cells, scientists in the US and Italy have warned.

So no drink, no drugs and apparently, no books - at least in the Millennium Dome. The Pounds 750 million construction to celebrate Britain's achievements over the past thousand years will not include mention of Chaucer, Shakespeare nor any other great writer; not even the Bible. The British Council and the literati are outraged. So they should be.

Virtual reality rules; but there is evidence that the much-vaunted information age fails to improve education. A survey of web-users' attitudes to the festive season found that only 9 per cent closely associated Jesus with Christmas; just over half considered Santa Claus part of the act; and 13 per cent even got the date wrong. The Church of England is retaliating by launching its own website.

If you can't beat them, join them: Scrabble is to compete with computer games in a bid to broaden its appeal. Mattel, the American company that owns the 50-year-old board game, will launch a CD-Rom version next year, a redesigned board along with a limited edition featuring the dreaded Dome. "Meaningless, " said David Pritchard, a games expert.

The same might be said of honorary degrees. Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist and film maker comes top with 20 awards. He is joined by the likes of Gary Lineker, Torvill and Dean and Robson Green as part of a trend for universities to award an Hon PhD or DLitt to stars of stage, screen, sport and business in desperation for publicity and finance in these competitive times.

Meanwhile, students are in a revisionist revolt over Pounds 1,000 university fees. It began in Oxford and is spreading around the country - even unto Sheffield, home of David Blunkett. Not much Christmas cheer for him.

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