John Walsh: Tales of the City

'There's not room in my daughter's head for new facts - crammed as it is with information on handbags'
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The Independent Online

I can't take much more of these exams. I spent last week in a fever, fretting about chemistry, French oral, English comprehension and the Conduct of the Cold War. It's not blooming fair. At my time of life, I should be with the other nostalgic oldies at the Isle of Wight festival, not sitting in a study with a towel wrapped round my head, trying to recall the by-products of combustion, while simultaneously wrestling with the daily timeline of the Bay of Pigs.

I don't mind enduring the current, punishing, seemingly-endless string of GCSEs which is the burden of my nearly-16 son; he is being cool about it all. But now my youngest, the 11-year-old daughter, is embroiled in exams at the same time as her brother. She is not used to ingesting information about subjects that are new to her. There's not enough room in her head for hundreds of new facts - crammed as it is with information on shoes, handbags, and cut-price tops in Primark.

She's a sophisticated child, but hardly sophisticated enough to establish a revision schedule by herself. So one tries, blunderingly, to help. One buys colour-coded stationery, subject dividers, Rolodexes and different-coloured fibre-tip pens. One festoons the study with wall charts, flip charts, pie charts and charts that record the conquering of previous charts and, by the end of an exhausting week's revision she has written down everything that can be known on a subject, filed and collated it, patted and pricked it and marked it - and now my daughter can remember precisely nothing about what happens when electricity travels in an alternating current, any more than she can recall what happened when Christ travelled in the Sea of Gallilee.

She has to face the exams because they're compulsory. They are the dreaded Sats - "standard assessment tests" -- which have made the UK's under-16s the most tested children in the world. A timely intervention at the weekend by the General Teaching Council for England (GTC) suggested the tests should be scrapped, to be replaced by a "sampling" of standards at a selection of schools, to see how well subjects are, or aren't, getting through to young minds. The government rejected their proposals outright, like a headmaster clouting a lippy third-former round the ear and calling him "Stupid boy." But the GTC is clearly right. Teachers should be allowed to teach, and pupils to learn, at a pace dictated by the latter's growing interest and maturity. Bring in external criteria of achievement, like the Sats, and you'll cause gratuitous stress to the scholars, embarrass the teachers and reduce parents to guilty rage. The only way pupils will shine in tests, at 11 or 12, is by learning stuff off by heart - the old Gradgrindian system in which every child knows a horse is a "graminivorous quadruped", but haven't a clue how else to describe it.

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More evidence arrives that we're sliding into an era of astonishing retro-naffness. Thirty-five years after I thought we'd buried The Sound of Music, Opportunity Knocks and Come Dancing, they're all back in sparkling new livery. Four new studies of postwar and Fifties Britain (by Dominic Sandbrook, David Kynaston, Peter Hennessy and Andrew Marr) are flying off the shelves. Now John Lewis announces that it's bringing back the Goblin Teasmade, that terminally crap invention that used to be one of the prizes given away at the end of The Generation Game. It was ingenious, but hopeless: it made tea, woke you up - and you still had to visit the kitchen to get some milk. Now, an acquaintance's child has asked for an old-fashioned typewriter on which to write school essays ("because it won't ever crash, and it won't look like anyone else's homework"). They're very trendy at the moment, apparently, among The Kids. If you're looking for cutting-edge technology - I have seen the future and its name is Olivetti Portable.

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I was determined not to watch Britain's Got Talent. I can't take any more hilarious ineptitude followed by scornful dismissal (I can get that at home). But I tried it because the new show purported to be different: the winner will appear on stage at the next Royal Variety Performance, and contestants don't need to sing to knock their Majesties dead; they just need an act. I retched at the dancing six-year-olds, I sighed at the lady who recited poetry with her cats - then, suddenly, a vision appeared. She was called Victoria, handsome, late-20s, bosomy and Mancunian, clad in zip-fronted biker's leathers that featured a kind of metal apron.

"What do you do?" asked the judges. "Ah do this thing wi' an angle-grinder," she said, showing the tool in her hand. "What kind of thing?" asked Cowell, bemused. "Make sparks," said the lady equably. "Off you go then," said Cowell. She asked for the lights to be turned down, loud music played - and she applied the whirling tool to her metal groin. Sparks flew in a flame-thrower cascade, up to the ceiling. She moved her hands across her crotch to vary the angle, and more sparks shot skyward like a fireworks display. Across the nation, 3 million male jaws hit the floor with an audible thud. Insouciantly, the lady bent over, widened her legs, adjusted her device and a torrent of sparks shot from her rump like a comet's tail. The crowd went wild. "Have you any plans for dinner tonight?" leered Piers Morgan when it was over. The judges waved her through to the second round. What was amazing was not the deranged lewdness of her performance, but the sweet, artless way she smiled at the end, pleased that she'd found something she was good at.

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