You've never had it so dull

THIS WEEK I want to write about standards. Not about whether they're rising or falling or dead on target but about our automatic assumption that their existence is a good thing.

Yes, it is reassuring to know that my children are being taught to government-approved standards by government standard-issue teachers, specially programmed not to sexually harass, politically indoctrinate or physically abuse those entrusted to their care. My father was educated by men who could have been drawn by Gillray or written by Dickens. Men such as Big Archie McQuittie who, if too many mistakes were made in class, would growl "By Gum, I've half a mind to go round the lot of you with a cricket stump" a threat that was invariably followed up by "By Gum, I think I will!" My own schooldays are littered with memories of masters like "Whipper" who used religious instruction to preach the evils of communism and masturbation, of the idiosyncratic Len Bowles who in the midst of teaching calculus once balanced a chair on his chin and juggled with the blackboard dusters, of Ted Dead who used to tell us what page to turn to then fall fast asleep and of Nobby, the woodwork master who used to roar "Take it to your body, boy" as he threw bits of wood at us. Believe me: I do not exaggerate.

Such men are gone now and I'm sure that headteachers across the country breathed a sigh of relief at their departure. But for the sake of my own children I have to say I'm a bit sorry. Will they ever know the inspirational value of genuine British eccentricity?

Just as New Labour has no room for splendid drunks like George Brown, termagants like Barbara Castle or nonagenarians like Manny Shinwell (a man who lived his entire life off-message) so our schools seem staffed these days with men and women who know that the way to keep your job is to keep your profile low. Chemistry teachers don't blow up the lab any more and the art master probably doesn't try to flog still-lifes to your mum and dad on parents' evening.

With every day that passes, the Government makes this world a safer place. They even protect us from the temptation to vote in Ken Livingstone, a dubious keeper of newts, as Lord Mayor of London. Truly we have never had it so safe, so standard nor so dull.

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