After our recent Ofsted inspection, one of our young teachers thanked me for keeping the inspector away from her classroom. She had been visited by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for less than five minutes and, all proving to be in order (she’s a very good teacher) the inspector and I had moved on. The teacher was relieved and very grateful. “It’s fine,” I said. “It’s my job. Protect you from the hooded claw, keep the vampire from your door.”
I thought that was quite funny, but while I was chuckling at my own joke (I know; bad habit), it slowly dawned on me that the young teacher had no idea what I was talking about. Her face was blank in every respect other than a gently forming frown. And then it occurred to me that she had been born about 10 years after Frankie Goes to Hollywood split up.
There was a time when I could beat any kid in the school in a foot race. Or at long jump. There was also a time when I could look most of the parents in the eye and know exactly what they were going through with their children at home because I, like them, was a young man with a young family.
Now I’m the same age as the grandparents. Some of my teachers are the same age as my own children. And I wouldn’t dream of racing any of the kids at school anywhere.
My staff have prohibited me from making any reference to how old I am. Apparently I do this all the time and they are fed up with it. So they chastise me, usually following up with “anyway, you’re not that old.” Thanks – that’s a great comfort. It’s true, I’m not that old. But I am this old.
And being this old is increasingly disconnecting me from the world our children are inhabiting, and particularly from what they are watching and listening to. The way our children spend their free time is unrecognisable to my older eyes, and the landscape has changed particularly rapidly in the last five years. Blue Peter and Grange Hill are long gone – so is television. If you sit and talk to children about their leisure time outside school, it is dominated by gaming – I think we knew that – but also content from Youtube.
Now this is the part where I am going to sound like a grumpy old man again, but I promise you that the objections I’m about to set out are not just my inner Luddite grumbling. There is a serious reason why we are worse off in a world where our children watch this stuff to the exclusion of everything else.
Let’s start with Cole & Sav. You may be familiar with these people if you have a primary school age child. If not, let me spare you the agony of actually watching any of it – essentially it is the humdrum lives of a young couple and their little girl filmed (I’m guessing) on their phones. There is lots of blond hair and they live in California, but otherwise their lives look pretty much like yours or mine. We get to watch them eating and going out and playing with their daughter, set to a soundtrack of lots of excitable noises and words like ‘wow’ and ‘awesome.’ All pretty harmless you might think.
Similarly JoJo Siwa, who will show you round her house/bedroom/life, at very high decibels, in between brightly-coloured dance routines. Whilst wearing an improbably large bow in her hair. It’s all very upbeat, glitzy and extremely American.
The problem is that it is unscripted. And there is no storyline, no plot. The characters don’t develop; in fact they hardly ever change. They are never challenged (other than that they might get a little upset occasionally). They are entirely one-dimensional – that dimension being happy-happy-happy-fun-fun-fun.
And because it is all happening on that level, you can’t learn anything from it. It doesn’t teach you anything about life, or how to react in different situations, or how people can change, how their feelings can be affected, how they solve problems or overcome adversity.
We learned all this stuff from our peers and role models – not just our friends around us and our families, but the people we read about in books and watched on TV. People like Tucker Jenkins and Zammo (for younger readers we’re back to the mythical days of Grange Hill here). The reason we could learn from what was happening to Zammo, was that it had been written by a proper writer (the great Phil Redmond) who had thought about the storyline and given it depth and significance.
This process is a significant part of learning how to be a person. Books and TV dramas, soap operas and films, they are all keepers of our national social mores and codes. They are how we learn what you do when X happens, or how you speak to someone like Y.
These are exactly the things we ask children about when they are reading books to us. We ask about the characters and the plot; we teach them to read between the lines. Now I have resisted bashing on about children reading up to this point. It goes without saying, of course, that children should read as much as they can – all sorts of books, for pleasure and for interest and to develop language and to learn about the world. Reading is the gold standard. But at least watching quality children’s film or television gives them some of the same benefits. Many of them are not even doing that.
Of course I understand the attraction of this culture for our children. And I am not advocating them spending all their waking hours improving themselves by reading worthy texts and watching wholesome family viewing. But as parents and teachers, we do need to be mindful of the world they are now living in and how quickly it is moving far, far away from our own.