Terence Blacker: Today's lesson: how to be a bossy boots

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The Independent Online

Disciplinarians everywhere will be delighted to learn that, not before time, teachers have begun to take a tough, proactive approach to such threats to education as junk food, computer games and St George's flags. The parenting skills of modern parents are often lamentable, they have discovered. It is up to the dynamic, concerned teacher to spread a spirit of responsibility and positive general attitude through the wider community.

Diet, for example. Fat children, we know, are a terrible blight on our society. It is not their fault, the little snacked-out things, but every bulging face, every wobbly bottom is an indictment of a culture where physical fitness is an expression of inner virtue. Schools like Bayards Hill Primary School in Headington have worked hard to improve the quality of meals. Yet parents still send off their little ones with crisps, chocolate biscuits and other inappropriate snacks.

So the Bayards Hill teachers took action. There was a lunchbox inspection. Unacceptable items were confiscated until the end of the day. Inevitably, parents were outraged. "How long till they start telling us what to give them at home?" asked a mummy called Debbie Cummins. "Where are they going to draw the line about how we bring up our own children?"

An answer of sorts is to be found in Bromley, Kent, where a power-crazed headmaster has taken to turning up at the family homes of pupils he feels are under-performing, and leaving only when the luckless child has surrendered his computer. "Sometimes they go into dumb shock, sometimes they cry or plead," he says breezily. "We keep the equipment until the adults get to the stage when they are in charge of the children, not the other way round."

I suppose one should applaud this new spirit of teacherly confidence, but on balance I think I am with Mrs Cummins. There are few things in the life of a family which do not impinge in some way upon a child's education. If teachers honestly believe that their responsibility now extends beyond the classroom, then why should they not loom up in the middle of the evening to ensure that the right TV programmes are being watched, or to check that conversation over dinner is suitably elevated, or that the parents' relationship is sound?

It was our caring Prime Minister who set this tone of general bossiness. Domestic problems are, we have learnt, more than simply a private matter. It is our civic duty to be concerned, involved. Oddly, the reaction has not been in the slightest bit bloody-minded. These days, we do not only expect to be lectured about our domestic behaviour; we quite like it. TV programmes in which a know-all nanny joins a family and tells the parents how to raise their children are hugely popular. Documentaries tend to have a whiff of brutality, a hint of boot-licking masochism to them.

It is as if the great age of bossiness has released teachers into the community where they will soon be doing their essential work among adults, as if the whole world has become like a giant classroom. The school in Stone-on-Trent that refused to allow its pupils to bring any kind of badge or flag on to its premises has just relented. During the duration of England's involvement in the World Cup, representations of St George will be accepted. Was the change of heart promoted by a spirit of patriotism, a sense that it was a time to enjoy the moment? Not at all. The World Cup, the school has decided, is "a learning opportunity".

A martyr for our dumb era

Because even brief exposure to TV's stupidest reality show induces the kind of symptoms the Victorians associated with self-abuse - moronism, impotence, depression and piles - no sane person will go near Channel 4 at present. Yet news from the programme is still solemnly reported in the more celebrity-obsessed newspapers.

Thus Daily Telegraph readers will have learnt that someone called Dawn has been expelled from the Big Brother house on the grounds that she broke the rules and was smelly. That, at least, was the producers' version of events, and it is one that Dawn has elected to contest by going on hunger strike. "I shall go on until I collapse," she said. She collapsed, is now in hospital and still not eating. If Dawn takes her smelly protest to its ultimate conclusion, becoming the Bobby Sands of reality TV, she' will be the perfect martyr for this absurd, demeaning programme.

* Ever a staunch defender of powerful business interests, the Government is taking a brave stand against an EU proposal to put a cap of €300,000 (£207,000) on its annual subsidies to farmers. Clearly the move would be a terrible blow to Britain's enormous agribusinesses, not to mention such vulnerable figures as the Duke of Marlborough (annual subsidy £511,435), the Duke of Westminster (£448,000) and the Queen (£399,440).

The British argue that the EU habitually favours small farms with hedgerows and low technology, whereas the way we like it is big, efficient and profitable. "We come from a completely different farming culture," our man in Brussels has said. That, a friendly Eurocrat might quietly tell him, is precisely the point. Subsidies are tied to environmental conditions rather than productivity. When it comes to agriculture, big is rarely beautiful.

terblacker@aol.com

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