Pass the salt first, then learn about Europe

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The Independent Culture
IF GOOD Housekeeping, that classic glossy read by two million women every month, were called simply Housekeeping would anyone buy it? That's the only thing that bothers me about Mr Blunkett's otherwise admiral plan to add another subject to the school curriculum from September 2002, namely citizenship. Shouldn't it be good citizenship, or is that another subject entirely? I wish it were.

As it stands, citizenship sounds suspiciously like the subject I took for O-level called British Constitution or Brit Con. If only I could remember as much about modern democracy and the workings of the British parliamentary system as I do about Miss Wakelyn, Brit Con teacher, I'd be a lot more clued up about politics now. Miss Wakelyn was undoubtedly a bloke in drag. She was 6ft 2in with massive shoulders, a lantern jaw, a cavernous voice and shoes like narrow-boats. Cynthia Wallis swore that once when Miss Wakelyn leaned across her desk to correct her essay she saw a skull and crossbones tattooed on her chest. But I digress. Brit Con was easy, as I am sure citizenship will be if they use the updated version of Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain as a textbook.

With the right teacher, citizenship could be almost as exciting as the topic my youngest daughter did one autumn term - rats. By Christmas there was nothing she didn't know about bubonic plague and the metropolitan sewage system. They took packed lunches to the London Dungeons to see rats gnawing the entrails of persecuted victims groaning in oubliettes. The coup de grace came when Miss Perkins, their teacher - who had a friend at the National Theatre - got them all jobs as extras in the National Theatre's production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Citizenship would obviously have to include the odd boring picture of Donald Dewar and maps of Europe, but there could also be jolly outings to the town hall and the local social security office, and maybe even a visit from our MP, Alan Clark, to talk to the children about sanctity of marriage.

Good citizenship is something else altogether. It's nothing to do with community tax or our entitlements or where we stand in the European Union. It's basically to do with behaving well. And since children imitate adults, and most adults don't behave well, this is an altogether more difficult row to hoe.

Take the ugly scene at my local swimming baths this morning. I tried to get my usual 20 lengths in before the schoolchildren arrive at 9am, but today we were late. (We were looking for a picture of Cleopatra being bitten by asps.) So there I was, placidly breast-stroking, when all hell broke loose.

Two women had collided in the inside lane. The one doing back stroke had bumped into the one in the green-spotted bath cap and they were now hurling insults at each other like Billingsgate fish wives. "Why don't you fucking look where you're going?" said Back Stroke. "Listen, bitch, I was here first," said Bath Cap.

The lifeguard, who had been cleaning the shallow end, used his long-handled skimmer to separate the combatants who were now lunging at each other fists and water flailing. The entire class of seven-year-olds learning to dive in the infant pool gathered round to watch. It was almost as entertaining as the fight in the school playground a couple of terms ago when two mothers, one heavily pregnant, had a heated argument which ended in them rolling around on the concrete like prize fighters.

A teacher friend says that PSE - Personal and Social Education - had been on the primary school syllabus for years, covering such vital subjects as being kind to one another and seeing someone else's point of view. Maybe that sort of tuition should fall to mothers rather than teachers - at least that way they may practice what they preach. Be warned. I am about to move into Ann Widdecombe mode. I heard her talking about citizenship a couple of days ago and, dare I say, I agreed with much that she said. Good citizens have good manners which teenagers today, including my own, do not. Many's the morning I stumble bleary-eyed into the bathroom to find a strange youth drying his acne on one of my towels. He has stayed the night, breakfasted, watched a bit of television and now, having finished his toiletry, will depart without a word unless challenged. "Why don't your friends introduce themselves?" I say. "They're shy," says my son.

We've got two more years of PSE Education before Mr Blunkett's citizenship comes on stream. Let's make the most of it. We could start with table manners. Bring back old-fashioned school dining rooms with a teacher at the top of every table advising pupils to eat with their mouths shut, pass the salt and say thank you. When they've done that, we'll discuss Europe.