Editor-At-Large: There's more to school than learning how to obey orders

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The Independent Online

Are soldiers the right people to teach unruly kids? In a week when a teacher was found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct because he worked as a stripper and a naked butler, I can see why Michael Gove is attracted to a school run by ex-military personnel. This proposed "free" school could be housed in ex-army barracks in Oldham, opening in 2013. It would focus on teaching just numeracy and literacy until pupils reach minimum standards.

Last week, Mr Gove emphasised that power in the classroom must revert back to teachers. Strict rules about the use of physical force to control disruptive pupils will be relaxed. Parents whose children are persistent truants will face stiff fines. Teachers will be able to search children and remove phones and iPods. Any member of staff accused by a pupil of assault will be given anonymity. Teachers no longer have to give 24 hours' notice of detention.

Before the riots, Mr Gove had been advocating all of the above – blaming a breakdown in classroom discipline on poor parenting and lack of boundaries at home. The latest figures show that 53,000 children aged seven or younger have been sent home from school in the past five years. Worse, 1,200 in this age group have been permanently excluded – deemed uncontrollable. How on earth are these youngsters learning? They are on the scrapheap at seven. Truancy is appalling in some parts of the country – a million children don't attend school for 10 per cent of the time. Of course, most work hard and have done well in exams. But with one in five leaving school semi-literate, it's clear that schools need to change. The riots have vindicated Mr Gove's stance. And with one in five teachers claiming they have been assaulted in the past year, drastic action is needed.

Mr Gove's solution places huge responsibility in the hands of teachers. Now they'll have to be doing the job of parents. A quarter of primary schools are staffed entirely by women. Mr Gove wants more male teachers, so that boys from single-parent families have a male role model. Is the chance to be a fake dad why teachers enter the profession? It seems an awful lot to ask. If teachers have to enforce law and order, as well as deal with stroppy parents, and offer themselves as good examples of where a decent education, manners and discipline can get you, are soldiers (who have no qualifications to teach) going to do a better job than someone with specialised teaching skills?

Benedict Garrett can hardly be described as a role model. Under his stage name of "Johnny Anglais" he starred in porn films and offered his services via an internet site his pupils were able to access. Mr Garrett was working as head of personal, social and health education at a high school in Ilford. Appearing before the General Teaching Council, he claimed there was "nothing wrong" with pornography. I agree. On a newspaper website he went on to justify his dual careers, asserting that porn is no more damaging than alcohol or smoking. Probably he's right. But the degradation and exploitation of weak (often addicted) people in the porn industry is hard to justify. Mr Garrett has not been barred from teaching – just given a "reprimand" for two years.

Teachers should be full-time teachers – and paid sufficiently so that they don't feel the need to moonlight as naked butlers. Equally, Mr Gove needs to make sure that his free schools, the first of which opened last week, don't siphon off the best teachers and pupils. There is always a danger that the large number founded by faith groups will reinforce social differences rather than build communities.

According to a spokesman, military personnel recruited as teachers will have degrees but not special training. This worries me. So do sentiments expressed by Clive Dytor, headmaster of The Oratory School, near Reading, and an ex-serviceman. He said "service personnel have focus with a capital F... they are taught to identify the problem, work out a solution, and then apply it." That might be true of the officer class – but the vast majority of servicemen simply obey orders. They are not required to think for themselves. Square bashing skills and a devotion to discipline won't suit every unruly boy. And it will damage the creative free-thinkers. Teaching is a demanding job – let's not hand it over to amateurs.

Fatal weakness of Madonna, the director

Critics gave Madonna's biopic about Wallis Simpson a mixed reception at the Venice film festival last week. One called W.E. "an undeniably strange concoction... bold, confident and not without amusing moments". Another wasn't so kind, describing the film the singer had directed as "more risible than we had any right to expect, a primped and simpering folly... a turkey that dreamed it was a peacock". Goodness.

Most concur that the film, which contrasts the love story of Edward Windsor and Wallis Simpson with a modern romance in New York, looks fabulous, even if there are some cringe-making moments, such as Wallis dancing with a Masai tribesman to the strains of "Pretty Vacant". Andrea Riseborough's performance as Wallis has been much praised – so there are reasons to go.

Sadly, Madonna is the worst person to promote her own work. Having met her, I can vouch for her attention to detail and hard work. Sadly, she suffers from a complete inability to understand irony or self-deprecation. So when Madge says she identifies with Wallis because they are both famous women, it sounds patronising.

She claimed "people try to diminish her [Wallis]... because they didn't understand the choice he [Edward VIII] was making" – which sounds a bit rich coming from someone whose fellow countrymen tend to have a very narrow view of modern history.

Yorkshire beats France – at fungi

I'm in Yorkshire, where the sun has decided to take a holiday for the past month. Our remote part of Upper Nidderdale has been locked under a blanket of cloud.

I drove 45 minutes to Ripon market last week to encounter a completely different climate – warm sunshine. The unrelenting greyness (with occasional showers) sometimes burns off around 5pm, just in time for an army of midges to make the garden uninhabitable. I had to put the heating on briefly during the bank holiday as guests were complaining.

The only upside of the worst summer for 18 years is the bumper crop of mushrooms the showers have produced. Yesterday I stumbled on 5lb of ceps. I bought less attractive specimens in Moissac on holiday for €20. Some things about Yorkshire are superior to rural France.

Good riddance to book bogofs

Waterstone's has bravely decided to abandon its three-for-two book bargains, part of its sales strategy for more than 10 years.

Not before time – the insidious bogof culture has spread from beans in supermarkets to shampoo in chemists to every aspect of shopping, but did it ever really favour consumers? We buy far too much of everything, from clothing to convenience meals. We eat too much rubbish – because we expect food to be cheap rather than of high quality.

Bookshops are already under threat from the internet and Kindle – they need to stop trying to mimic discount warehouses. Promotions on individual books are fine, but how many of us read that third book we picked up gratis?

To compete with Kindle, books need to be beautifully packaged, something that you want to treasure, not give away.