Tom Sutcliffe: The life lesson all children need to learn

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I momentarily turned into Norman Tebbit over the weekend – an unsettling experience which was vaguely reminiscent of that bit in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum suddenly starts buzzing uncontrollably. The catalyst in my case wasn't a careless test-run with a matter transmitter but overhearing a comment on the story that teachers were now finding themselves facing their own pupils on interview panels.

The NASUWT had – rather tentatively given the dossier of absurdities it had accumulated – proposed that the idea of student representation in schools might be getting out of hand. Sample absurdities include the candidate invited to sing a favourite song during a board and the candidate who discovered that one of his assessors was a pupil whom he'd given a detention just a few days earlier. And the Tebbit thing happened when someone popped up on the radio to say that children are the "primary consumers" of education and that it was critical that, as consumers, their views should be taken into account.

I've tried to track down the guilty party since and I've failed, but I'm sure I'm not imagining this idiotic remark, since the fulmination came after it, not before. And what turned me into Tebbit – a sneer on the lip and a pulse in the temporal veins – was two things. First, the dismal presumption that the Consumer is now the apotheosis of the social being: all human transactions seen as variations on a commercial exchange, so that patients and prisoners and pupils become "customers" and "clients". And second, the utterly craven abdication of the adult duty to be unpopular from time to time.

Children are not "consumers" of education – a title which implies a degree of free choice in what you consume, not to mention a direct involvement in paying for it. They are "recipients", and though it makes tactical sense to give them a convincing illusion of involvement in the process, we shouldn't become over-anxious about the fact that they will, occasionally, be unwilling ones. It's boring, is it? Well, yes, life isn't Alton Towers, and boredom is sometimes the price you have to pay to get to something far more exciting. And, dare one say, there are times when your feelings come second.

I've been startled to find queries about my children's less glowing performances at school answered with the explanation that they "don't really like that teacher". They believe that this exempts them from all responsibility in the matter while for me it's almost as illogical as if they were to say that they passed a purple car on the way to school that day. The teacher isn't there to be their friend, or to make them feel good about themselves, I explain (just a tiny bit Tebbity at these moments, too, if I'm honest) – the teacher is there to teach them.

I blame happiness – or at least the pernicious assumption that it is the highest priority we have in regard to our children's lives. I don't deny that this is actually a parental wish. It would just be a lot better if adults kept it a secret from children – a strategy that would, paradoxically, result in more happiness not less. As it is they understand that our obsession with their happiness is a lever they can manipulate, often to their own detriment. Or they construe the perfectly ordinary tediums of life as a personal failure, a mysterious and unjust exemption from the steady-state contentment which we have falsely implied is a human norm. And now, it seems, we're letting them have a say in hiring the teachers who have to combat the ludicrous presumption that a period of double maths should be fun. It will pass, this buzzing, I know it will. But I'm going to have to avoid listening to the radio.

A monumentally graceless tower

Unveiling the ArcelorMittal Tower, Boris Johnson acknowledged that the construction's ugly and unwieldy name would almost certainly be replaced by Londoners with something more informal. Can I suggest "The Pig's Ear" as a possibility? When I first saw the news coverage of Anish Kapoor's detumescent transmitter tower I assumed it was an April Fool. But then it became clear that this 120-metre high defacement of Kapoor's artistic reputation really was going to be built. It isn't entirely out of keeping with some of his recent work – bearing a vague visual kinship to the extruded cement pieces which featured in his Royal Academy show last year, with their drooping coils and loops. In this case though an already messy form has been further vandalised with a café and a spiral staircase, the final result being monumentally graceless. In most of Kapoor's other works of public sculpture the enigma is a seductive one. "How did this thing, so elemental and beautiful, come to land here – and what might it mean?" In this case the enigma is just bafflement. How come nobody tactfully pointed out that Kapoor's inspiration has literally tied itself in knots? Perhaps this is unfair and the thing itself will persuade as the model and the artist's renderings cannot. In the meantime, it's probably got the name it deserves. Bolted together, inelegant and about as rhythmic as a derailed train.

Extremists need little help to look ridiculous

It seems ironic that Eugene Terreblanche might achieve more for his political cause by being hacked to death than he ever did while alive – the transparent absurdity of the man offering an antidote to his own toxins.

Now, rather dangerously, that antidote has been neutralised – and as a martyr Terreblanche can be effective in ways that he never could as self-evident clown. The story made an interesting companion piece to the news that Nick Griffin has accused one of his closest associates of attempting to launch a putsch against him – a timely underlining of the fact that extremist groups can usually be relied upon to screw themselves far more efficiently than outsiders. "We believe we have uncovered the most serious and dangerous threat to this party that we have ever witnessed," said a leaked BNP document. That's right. Decades of opposition by "mongrel" outsiders, global conspiracies and race-traitors wasn't a patch on the bigot at the next desk. Just imagine, by contrast, how gleeful Mr Griffin would have been had a plot to kill him been launched by Islamists, say, or some left-wing groupuscule.

It's important to be vigilant about the ideas of extremist parties and to contradict them. But usually you can leave the direct action to them. They shoot themselves in the foot with such skill that you might as well save your ammunition for something more worthy.