Failing the teachers, misjudging Max Clifford and Thomas Piketty’s bestselling shelf-filler

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Convicted: Max Clifford arrives at Southwark Crown Court ahead of his sentencing, 2 May. Photo: Getty
Convicted: Max Clifford arrives at Southwark Crown Court ahead of his sentencing, 2 May. Photo: Getty

Ann Maguire, the teacher stabbed to death by a pupil at a Catholic secondary school in Leeds, was dedicated, devout, patient, caring and inspiring, “the mother of the school”, always striving for “excellence”. Those are just a few of the descriptions used by newspapers. And I do not question for one moment that Maguire deserved them.

That is not how newspapers and politicians, particularly those of a right-wing persuasion, normally write about state school teachers. More often, we are told that, enslaved to left-wing ideology, teachers instruct children in atheism and immorality, tolerate low standards and don’t work hard enough. We shall hear many suggestions about who or what was to “blame” for Maguire’s tragic death. (My answer would be the boy who used the knife but nobody wants to leave it at that.) Permissive liberal values, welfare benefits, violent video games, social media and the abolition of corporal punishment will, most likely, be among the alleged culprits.

Nobody will mention the routine denigration of teachers by politicians and the media. Yet that must bear some responsibility for the growing instances of both pupils and parents refusing to accept teachers’ authority and sometimes resorting to violence to make their point.

 

Double shock

Unearthing journalists’ faulty predictions and poor judgements is always enjoyable. To my delight, I once discovered that the Sun, in a fawning interview in 1973, described Gary Glitter (later imprisoned for sexual offences against children) as “the rock’n’roll daddy who makes little girls ask to see more of his hairy chest”. So before anybody else finds out, I will reveal that, during my editorship, the NS ran an article under the headline “Max Clifford is a nice chap shock”. We reported that Clifford, who has just been convicted of sexually abusing four girls, was a man of “private modesty . . . committed to public service” whose “personal life has been a paragon of virtue”. Since this was in 2000, we don’t even have the excuse that it was the 1970s.

 

Automatic for the people

Since I love travelling on trains, I should be delighted that the bill for the HS2 rail link sailed through its Commons second reading. But I keep hearing about driverless cars. Google’s prototype has driven 700,000 miles around California and several manufacturers envisage such vehicles being on the market by 2020. Audi has demonstrated a car that drops you off, parks itself and returns when summoned by an app.

People opt for rail because they can read, work, eat, make calls or gaze at scenery while travelling. Driverless cars will reduce those advantages and, I should think, particularly appeal to the expense-account executives at whom HS2 is mainly aimed. Has anybody in the government thought about this?

 

Undermining aristocrats

Visiting relatives in Derbyshire, my wife and I took a detour north of Sheffield to Wentworth Woodhouse, recently opened to the public. It is sometimes called “the Buckingham Palace of the north” but it would perhaps be better to call the Queen’s metropolitan pad the Wentworth Woodhouse of the south. Most of the house, covering 2.5 acres, was built by 18th-century Whigs. It eventually passed to the Fitzwilliams who made fortunes out of the Barnsley coal seam that their estates happened to straddle.

The guides speak venomously of Emanuel Shinwell’s role in the house’s decline. As Labour’s fuel and power minister in the late 1940s, he ordered open cast mining in the Wentworth gardens right up to the walls of the house, undermining its foundations. As the coal was of poor quality and the Fitzwilliams were considered relatively enlightened mine owners, Shinwell was (and is) accused of vandalism and class hatred.

I’m with Shinwell. He showed that he didn’t fear upsetting those who had previously been the nation’s unquestioned rulers. A bit of rough justice was necessary to break centuries-old habits of British deference. I wish Labour’s present leaders had a fraction of Shinwell’s spirit.

 

Greek to me

One effect of the internet is that, with sufficient hype, a book can become a bestseller before anyone has thought about whether they actually want to read it. I think this has happened to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. If you picked it up in a bookshop, you would soon realise that it’s a dense economics tome, with graphs, equations featuring Greek letters and 76 pages of notes. On the net, you just click. I fear that, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Piketty’s book will have many more buyers than readers. 

12 issues for £12