Why we can't all go back to the 1940s

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
Those who watched The 1940s House on Channel 4 saw the Hymers family spending eight weeks away from modern living as they experienced the hardships of a recreated Home Front.

Daily living conditions matched 1940s restrictions as closely as possible including blackouts and rationed food and cigarettes, although we knew that no matter how often the air raid sirens sent them to their Anderson shelter each night, there was no danger overhead.

Just as interesting as their stay in the 1940s were the reflections of the Hymers six months after they returned to the 21st century. The adults had lost weight and were fitter and less wasteful. Their improvements could have been predicted but it was in the children, boys aged seven and 10, where the most interesting changes were seen. They had no television, computers or modern toys and, in response, had developed more powerful imaginations and better concentration. So much did they enjoy inventing their own games and activities that they continued to do so on their return to 2001. Their increased creativity and co-operation led to a more positive attitude to school and improved progress.

In the week that The 1940s House ended, figures published by the Scottish Executive attracted shock headlines over reports of a 50 per cent rise in attacks on teachers in schools. Three thousand assaults were reported between August 1999 and August 2000, carried out by the children of the computer and PlayStation generation. Regrettably, it is not possible to assign these children to living in the 1940s; so the Education Minister has set up a task force on indiscipline.

All who work in schools know that indiscipline is the single most draining factor in teaching. Thereis a growing threat from children who engage in verbal or physical assaults. Other children and school staff are at risk and the dangers are present early on - more than a third of the assaults were by primary children.

The economic, social and medical progress achieved since the Second World War has given us a generation of children better fed, housed, clothed and listened to than ever before, but this progress has been bought at a price. Many of our children are less fit, less content, less tolerant and less able to relate to others. There is an increasing number of confused and rootless children whose lack of stability in their own lives has prevented them achieving any competence in the important social skills of making and keeping relationships, coping with disappointment and balancing their own needs against those of others.

The principal educational psychologist for Southampton wrote to The Times saying: "We do not tolerate bad behaviour in our schools." The statement is almost shocking because we are not used to hearing education leaders take such a clear stand on school discipline. More, please.

The ministerial task force has to acknowledge that not all behaviour difficulties can be resolved by an interesting curriculum, star charts and a dose of circle time. There are children whose needs cannot be met in a large class and crowded playground and who require different arrangements to help them achieve the confidence to cope with normal life. Much of their school week needs to be spent in small well-staffed groups.

The 1940s House reminds us that children learn social skills and develop positive attitudes best within a small group of adults who have grown up themselves.

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