A couple of days ago, a conference of headteachers expressed concern that schools were having to instill moral values in their pupils – particularly those from working-class families. A generation ago, parents were happy to set rules and discipline their children, but now increasing numbers of teachers are finding they have to assume this role, as school provides the only stable element in many children's lives.
It is true that a worrying number of young people have zero social skills and little sense of what is unacceptable behaviour. It is not their fault, but it is a direct result of the fact that many never eat a meal as a family at home, never have a conversation without the telly being on and most don't even have one parent looking after them, let alone two.
It is against this background that two distressed single mothers have been given saturation media coverage recently. Both are white, working-class and relatively hard up. On the surface, at least, both seem to typify the unconventional parenting that some teachers find problematic.
Fiona MacKeown is a Romany who grows vegetables and keeps ponies in rural Devon, raising her nine children (by four different fathers) in a collection of caravans with a generator for electricity and a borehole for water – The Good Life, 21st-century style. She decided to take eight of her children on a six-month break to India but it ended in tragedy when her daughter Scarlett, 15, was found dead on a beach in Goa with more than 50 wounds to her body.
We might find it perplexing that Mrs MacKeown was happy to take the rest of the family to a neighbouring state, leaving her daughter behind with friends they had known for only a few weeks, but who can deny that arguing with a stroppy 15-year-old who didn't want to hang out with younger siblings would have been difficult? It doesn't make Mrs MacKeown a criminal.
Authorities in Goa, worried by the bad publicity, say they are considering investigating her for negligence, and the distraught mother has written to the Indian Prime Minister claiming Goan police are involved in a cover-up. On Monday, the Today programme interviewed Mrs MacKeown as if she was somehow to blame – her "crime" that of being an unconventional mum giving her kids a taste of an alternative lifestyle. I was left with the distinct impression the presenters were articulating the moral values of Middle England and The Daily Mail. This mum was clearly found wanting, and yet no one in Devon can find a bad word to say about her parenting skills – her children are said to be polite and well mannered. She is articulate and composed.
Yesterday, Today interrogated another young mother, Karen Matthews, whose nine-year-old daughter Shannon has been missing from home in Leeds for three weeks. Mrs Matthews was asked, "So you have seven children by five fathers?" as if that somehow implied that she was a deficient parent or implicated in her daughter's disappearance. Her distress was palpable.
Why on earth should this woman have to discuss allegations made by her relatives about her partner of four years, a fishmonger a decade younger than her, which hinted that he might have had a difficult relationship with the missing girl?
You would think that, after all the bile that was heaped on Kate McCann because she was too thin, too intense and too well-dressed, we would have learnt that when a child is involved in a tragedy, it is generally not the fault of the mother. This time, their imagined crime is to fall short of middle-class respectability.
Nimbys of the art world
When did our successful artists decide to ape Bono and Co and convince themselves they are our unelected moral guardians? While musicians lecture us about climate change and HIV, the battle to be the next London Mayor sees artists including Antony Gormley donate works which raised more than £100,000 for Ken Livingstone's campaign.
In the opposing corner are Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman and Rachel Whiteread, who have published a letter attacking Ken for ruining the city with "relentless" development, and enthusing about the East End's "strong social fabric".
They are well-meaning nimbys who don't want tower blocks in their neighbourhood – forgetting that without new buildings a city stagnates and ceases to excite.
* Controversy about badgers is set to be overshadowed by more animal culling. A cemetery near Guildford has been overrun by moles digging up graves. Now the council wants to dispose of the harmless little creatures out of "respect" for the dead.
Quite honestly, once you're dead, you're dead and, if a small, furry animal wants to burrow through your rotting remains, what's the problem? Graveyards are already blighted by a rash of ugly health and safety signs warning us about the danger of falling tombstones, but is there anywhere more romantic and peaceful than a large overgrown cemetery with rampant weeds and happy colonies of birds?
In my garden in Yorkshire, I have installed an embarrassing number of anti-pest devices. As lettuces and beans started to flourish, so did the amount of fortification: rabbit-proof fences, gates that deer cannot get over, nets to ward off pigeons and keep out cabbage white butterflies.
They all look formidable – but I have reluctantly decided that Mr Mole can stay.Reuse content