Apparently, only half of the parents in the UK think that they are solely responsible for toilet training. What sort of parents can they be?

I have been totally taken aback by reports in the UK press about the sad state of children starting school for the first time.

According to a survey by Kindred, a charity, 82% of teachers say that of every class coming into primary school at least one child does not even know how to open a book. Instead, the poor little dears believe they have to tap or swipe a book to get it started, as if it was a tablet or an iPad! That is not just sad. It is appalling! I rarely find myself lost for words – obviously – but I am finding it very difficult to describe my reaction to this news, at least not in language that is usually acceptable to polite society.

The rest of the survey makes equally depressing reading. Apparently, of these kids turning up at school for the first time, more than a third of them are unable to hold a pencil, about a quarter cannot even say their own names, more than 35% cannot count up to ten, almost 40% can’t dress themselves, and almost a quarter of them are not even toilet trained.

It’s a long, long time since I was in primary school, but I’m damned sure my parents would never have let me out of the house without these basic life skills. Not to put too fine a point on it, they would have been black affronted, and here am I thinking that the world is supposed to have moved on and improved in these 70 odd years I am talking about.

In particular, my father and mother would have been ashamed if I had started school without even knowing what a book was and the importance of using one properly to read, learn, and develop. They might not have quoted John Milton to the young me, but they certainly drummed into me his sentiment that “a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit”. As a result, for as long as I can remember, I have lived a life surrounded by books and I still do, reading everything and anything I can. When I went to school, I was only too ready and willing to learn. And, throughout my schooldays, from Primary 1 to my last year of secondary education, I was fortunate enough to be guided by some wonderful, dedicated men and women who encouraged me to love language and literature, and use it to think for myself, to develop skills and knowledge, and to use them (I hope) well.

Even now, I still remember all their names and I can still see their faces, and I shall be forever grateful to them. As I have matured and grew into adulthood (and I will concede that there are many who will share my dear wife’s view that I still have some way to go to achieve that state)  it is my sincere hope that I have lived up to all their expectations and, if we do meet in the Great Perhaps, they can say “their boy done good”, although I suspect they would not hesitate to correct that grammar!

What I find specially depressing about this survey is the reaction of some of the parents. Apparently, only half of the parents think that they are solely responsible for toilet training. What sort of parents can they be? What can they possibly believe is the responsibility involved in bringing a child into this world and bringing one up? Do they genuinely think that it is right to send their son or daughter to start school so ill-prepared to begin their education for life? As one teacher who took part commented, somewhat bitterly: “We are not teaching in the first years now. It’s more babysitting.”

One of the excuses being offered is that these are the children whose first years were spent in the Covid period of lockdown and working from home. But surely that was a time when families stayed together much more than usual, when parents had the opportunity to talk much more to their children, to play with them, and teach them what life was all about. But rather, parents were too busy glued to their electronic screens, and left their youngsters to do the same. Contrary to popular belief, I am not a high-tech Luddite: I can use a computer when I find it convenient and I do have a mobile phone. Although I should point out that it is the smallest, cheapest, and simplest available. I can make and receive telephone calls on it, and I can send and receive texts. That’s all I want in a phone. I don’t want to know the temperature in Bangkok, and I have no time for having my day constantly interrupted by a stream of besotted pet owners sending photographs of their darling Fidos in silly hats and sunglasses.

I have news for those parents for whom the internet is the be-all and end-all: there isn’t a computer programme in existence that can teach a child to tie its own shoelaces or pee in civilised fashion.

Such concerns were further reinforced by an item in the Sports Section of the Daily Telegraph, no less, that one of England’s biggest girls’ football leagues is facing a quandary because (and I find this hard to believe) a boy’s parents want their son to play in it – apparently he does not want to compete with other boys. Do this man and woman even understand what they are lumbering their son with? If this gets out – and it’s in the press so it has – this poor lad will be subject to inevitable ridicule from classmates and friends, and probably, even worse, some risk. This is in Yorkshire, a part of the world where they approach their sport with a somewhat full-blooded outlook. I would not want to be the one boy sharing a Yorkshire football pitch with 21 girls. They are liable to marmerlise the poor little tyke, just to prove a point.

I speak with some personal, and painful, experience. In my last year at school, as part of a charity fund raising drive, the male prefects took on the female prefects in a fun (???) hockey match. Following that game, I missed the remainder of the rugby season and most of the following cricket season as the result of an unfortunate difference of opinion between my left kneecap and a hockey stick wielded, I won’t say with malice aforethought, but certainly with determined aggression, by a member of the opposing team.

As Rudyard Kipling put it, “the female of the species is deadlier than the male!”

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