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Social mobility is in the news  again. As usual, the best universities are getting stick for not admitting enough students from “disadvantaged backgrounds.” There is disadvantaged and disadvantaged, as we know, but in general this is taken to mean children from poorer, uneducated or non-English families who have been educated in state schools.

That these factors can influence a child’s academic achievement is beyond question, but it is no fault of the universities when children fail to score good enough grades or acquire the kind of general culture that would enable them to profit from a university education. The fault lies quite clearly with the schools and with my generation of well-meaning hippy-Marxist-let-it-all-hang-loose teachers who abolished grammar and structure, who dismissed knowledge and discipline as boring and bourgeois control mechanisms designed to inhibit the flowering of creativity which would shatter for ever the chains that capitalism sought to impose, who strove to make the curriculum relevant to working class children who had a perfectly good and vigorous culture of their own, who lumped together the quick and the slow, the interested and the completely indifferent, in lessons like maths… How long would Arsène Wenger have stayed in his job if he had introduced joint training sessions for the van Persies and the halt and lame?

The results of this approach to teaching in schools are plain to see: mis-spelling and mis-speaking a commonplace, even among those who pass for educated and speak in our names on the radio and TV. In the place of history we act out the evening meal in a Saxon peasant’s hut as imagined by our thirteen-year-old brains. It was already rather shocking in the 70’s when I last taught in this country. It is a lot worse now.

I was a Rough Guide author for several years. All the editors were university graduates, yet they invariably introduced all sorts of errors into the manuscripts I submitted, including misused words, inconsistencies like spelling a place name two or three different ways on the same page. And this was a book about France. You would think that an apparently educated person would be aware whether or not he had a reasonable knowledge of French and, if he did not, would  take care to check, especially when the only trouble it entailed was looking at a map. But no: the degree of ignorance is such that people are no longer aware of their own ignorance and seem to regard precision and accuracy with total indifference.

In the June 16th Observer Brian Sewell berates the BBC and other TV outfits for their dumbed-down, populist approach in documentaries about serious subjects like art and history. The subject is “presented” by some more or less attractive personality, as if any serious discussion, explanation or investigation amounted to a sort of arrogant display of toff-ish elitism and disdain for the hoi polloi.

A dear friend, now dead, had an interview with the head of a girls’ comprehensive in south London. He was looking for a suitable school for his daughter. He had been an accomplished athlete himself and wanted to find a school that took sport seriously. “Oh, yes,” said the head. “We think sport is very important for girls, but we don’t believe in team games and competitive sport.”

All shall have prizes. No failures, only deferred success.

This is the sort of woolly-minded nonsense that has now pushed us well down the league table for educational achievement in the world. And who has benefited from it? Not working class children. Not children from “disadvantaged” backgrounds. Many more of them got into the top universities when grammar schools still flourished. And while grammar schools may not be the perfect answer to our education problems, they were certainly in many ways more effective than what has replaced them.

No skills can be acquired without rigour, discipline, sacrifice. If you are going to learn to play the guitar well, you have got to stay in playing scales when your friends are out partying. The same is true of carpentry, speaking French, playing tennis. If you do not master the basics – and learn to live with the bruised knees and bruised ego that goes with it – you ain’t going to make it.

The friends I have had who left school early have nearly all regretted not having a proper education and striven to make up for it in the rest of their lives. The popularity of books like Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Gwynne’s Grammar suggests that many people feel very anxious about their shaky grasp of their language. And that they want to know things, not be fudged off with the second-rate, the easier option. Long live Comrade Gove!

On October 24th 2012 Graeme Atherton wrote in The Guardian: “Access league tables based on the progress HEI’s are making over time across a range of under-represented groups could be a powerful way of using information to influence institutional behaviour.” Quite so! Is he a graduate of a Russell Group university? Now there is a worrying thought.

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Brian May thinks badgers. I think cows. Who is going to speak up for cows and for those who lovingly breed them, raise them, care for them and then have to kill them because the nasty, unhygienic badgers have made them ill?

Cows are useful too. They mow all that grass, for free. They make milk and other, little cows that grow into meat, including that delicious veal.  They stand in meadows flicking their tails and making the English countryside the best in the world, like so many other features of life in England, milk, wine and the education system among them.

Who is Brian May to condemn them to death? Let’s ask the crowd, the plebs, one might say these days. Thumbs up or thumbs down for the cows? The plebs will know for sure; their moral compass is unfailing. They have watched all those lovely David Attenborough films of cuddly baby animals playing and displaying while, safely removed behind the TV screen, mummy bear or daddy leopard rips apart a living salmon or beautiful doe-eyed antelope, without waiting for an official certificate of humane killing.

When the Flood subsided, God told Noah that all beasts of the earth, birds of the air and fishes of the sea, “into your hand are they delivered.” In other words, as is obviously the case, it is up to mankind to manage, husband and generally direct what happens on earth. Including the fate of badgers. They are, after all, only animals.

When I was a child, sixty years ago, there were many fewer badgers and much less TB in cattle. Coincidence?

Killing things is not in itself cruel. Badgers and deer have no natural predators in England. Their populations need to be managed, for their own good. It is just so English to work up a furious lather over animals. Pure sentimentality, in fact: something that only a largely urban nation, that does its hunting and gathering in supermarkets and shopping malls can afford to indulge in.

Aren’t they cute? So cuddly. Just like us. Just like us, they frolic and play when they are young and kill each other when they grow up, although I have not heard that they indulge in grooming young girls and interfering with them à la Savile. But then of course in England we are not too bothered about what happens to children, or old people, come to that: where they die, whether they die alone in retirement homes, far from their families. They are not half as cute as animals. If only Brian May would turn his weepy sympathies to human children…

Does he know that when you find a little lamb with a broken back and no stomach, it is most likely the work of a badger? Badgers, like bears who get a taste for an easy meal of lamb or cow, go for the soft parts. Badgers of course cannot kill cows this way, but bears do; they go for the udders. And what about wolves… I have just spoken with Greek shepherd friends starting their autumn transhumant journey with their flocks. They have to contend with both bears and wolves. Would Brian May be campaigning against men like them who defend themselves and their animals with guns? Wolf and bear cubs are awfully cute.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that given that there is a problem with TB in cattle and that badgers are clearly involved and that there is not any other effective solution in the offing, trying a cull might be a sensible first move. Suppose it worked? That would rattle the superannuated pop singers who have suddenly discovered the infallibility of science.

And as for Ayatollah Steven Grant, CEO of the RSPCA, and his outrageous fatwa against farmers taking part in the badger cull…if you were to substitute for farmers, Muslim shopkeepers refusing to display I-love-Rushdie posters, he would find himself in court for inciting hate crime!

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