I’d rather trust teachers in the sex education debate

What age (if at all) do you believe sex education should be taught in schools?

What age (if at all) do you believe sex education should be taught in schools?

As we stumble towards the general election, a few eye-catching policies are starting to trickle out from the main parties.

This includes the Liberal Democrats who this week ruffled a few feathers with the suggestion that sex education should be taught in schools to children as young as seven.

Yes, I know it’s only the Lib-Dems but there’s every chance that the smaller parties could hold the balance of power in Westminster come next May and such policies could therefore become key bargaining chips.

As a parent, my instinctive reaction to the sex education proposal is to recoil in horror at the thought of my youngest, who just happens to be seven, being exposed to this sort of knowledge at such a tender age.

Surely children should be allowed a childhood before they have the grim realities and responsibilities of relationships thrust upon them?

At the age of seven I was enjoying Scooby-Doo cartoons, playing with toy soldiers and cowboy guns, and hoping against hope that Santa Claus would bring me a Raleigh Grifter.

Girls were those other people in my class at school. The ones with the long hair who used skipping ropes at playtime and showed no interest in my half-full Panini sticker album.

They were just different to us boys. It didn’t matter why, they just were. It didn’t matter to me because I was seven.

Having been a governor in a primary school for several years I am only too aware of the fact that at the age of seven many children are still painfully shy and struggle to communicate and integrate with others.

Some don’t play well while others may not be able to read or write as well as many of their peers.

So how on earth would such children, or even their more confident and mature classmates, cope with sex or relationship education?

The truth is I’m not against the Lib-Dem proposal per se. For me, it’s more about how such knowledge is delivered and who it is given by.

When I was a shy, tubby 12-year-old at Holden Lane High I remember flushing red with embarrassment as the biology teacher asked the class to turn to the pages in our text book focusing on reproduction.

Cue much sniggering from the boys and girls in what was the top class in the year.

It seems to me there has always been a strange blurring of the lines in schools in England between where the duties and responsibilities of parents end and where those of teachers begin.

When I was growing up in the late Seventies and early Eighties, sex was not discussed in the playground or the PE changing rooms until the boys in my year hit 14 or 15.

Some may have known a while before how babies were made but, if they did, they kept it to themselves.

A few doubtless found out from their parents in a traditional ‘birds and bees’ type chat. However, I dare say the majority of us learned things from older siblings or friends.

Most of us didn’t have girlfriends or boyfriends until we were in our final year at high school, aged 16, or perhaps even later.

At no point did anyone sit us down and explain that what is more important than sex is how you treat the other person before, during and afterwards.

Nobody told us that during the course of adolescence we’d all have our hearts broken and our dreams crushed.

Nobody taught us the importance of respect and trust either.

I dare say my class and my year (1988) was no different to any other around that time.

Arguably, because of mobile phones, the internet, and social media, nowadays children grow up even more quickly and are exposed to the kind of chatter and images that would have sent teenage me running for cover.

But I would argue the same problems still remain. Unacceptably high rates of underage pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, broken relationships and domestic violence.

I can’t help but think that if children were, as part of their general education, given some help and guidance in the perils, pitfalls and practicalities of relationships, it would perhaps better prepare them for life.

We’re not very good at honest debate in this country but sex (along with booze and drugs) is a subject which our young people need help with in order to understand and deal with it in a responsible fashion.

Perhaps seven is a bit young, but I’m damn sure that by the time most children reach high school these days they will be mixing with others of a similar age who know a lot more than they perhaps should and learnt it from a less reliable source than their friendly class teacher.

Classrooms the length and breadth of the country already teach personal and social education and promote respect.

Surely education in relationships is just the next step along that path.

Whether or not teaching staff in primary schools are qualified and feel comfortable talking to their pupils about such things, well I guess we’d have to ask them.

But I’d rather trust their judgement than a politician’s philosophising.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

A good toy is a good toy… for boys or girls

The Evel Knievel rev-up motorcycle.

The Evel Knievel rev-up motorcycle.

Hopefully, by the time this column returns next week Santa Claus will have visited chez Tideswell and made two little girls very happy once more.

On Christmas Day the most difficult decision they will probably have to make will be which toy to play with.

I reckon Santa knows them well enough by now to realise that they aren’t really girly-girls – if such creatures ever existed.

The truth is my two are just as likely to play with Nerf guns, walkie-talkies or superhero figures as they are to dress up as Disney princesses or play school with their teddies.

Yours truly wouldn’t have it any other way and I’ve positively encouraged my daughters to play with whatever toys take their fancy – not simply the ones packaged in pink boxes and involving fairies and ponies.

The news (Tweeted to a Labour politician) that Marks & Spencer is to become the latest high street name to make its toys ‘gender neutral’ (I hate that phrase) is a good move in my book.

When we, as a family, browse the toy aisles in any store my girls are just as likely to get excited about toys which have been marketed specifically for boys.

If you delve in their dressing up box, alongside the fairy gowns, wigs and cat outfits you’ll find holsters and cowboy guns, swords and shields.

Ask my two about superheroes (usually considered a preserve of lads) and they can name virtually every Marvel comic book character and tell you their powers.

Talk to them about Dungeons and Dragons and they’ll tell you that clerics have the best chance of defeating zombies because they’re undead. Obviously.

Today, our eldest – Lois – gets to take a toy into school as it’s the last day of term.

She has chosen the Tauriel action figure – complete with bow, quiver of arrows and two swords (as has her friend Lizzie).

So while other girls in her class will be playing whatever they’re playing, Lois and Lizzie will be re-enacting scenes from the latest Hobbit movie. And why not?

This doesn’t mean my Lois and her younger sister Mina won’t want to read the Rainbow Fairies books in bed at night anymore, or have their nails painted by mum, or make bead necklaces for their friends or collect Beanie Boos.

It just means they like a bit of variety and I’m glad they don’t feel boxed in to playing with things which are only fluffy or pink.

When I was four I used to follow my cousin Joanne around like a sheep. I thought she was marvellous. (Obviously you still are, Jo). Whatever Joanne played with I wanted too. Consequently I nagged my mum for a doll and she gave in. Lord knows what my dad must have thought.

My doll’s name was Susie and I have vivid memories of carrying her around and talking to her.

At one stage she was definitely in a relationship with my second-hand Eagle-Eyed Action Man and they lived in a shoe box.

Bear in mind I was born in 1972 and even back then toys were marketed very specifically along male/female lines.

I grew up in the age of games and toys like Tank Command and Tin Can Alley, the Evel Knievel rev-up motorcycle and Scalextric – all aimed at boys.

But, in truth, my favourite toy up until high school was soldiers – something which saw no television marketing.

I had a tin of tiny plastic ones which included British and German Second World War soldiers, Napoleonic infantry and U.S. cavalry troopers.

It was a collection I’d built up over several years and that tin went everywhere with me.

Mum and dad will tell you it kept me quiet for hours and I dare say they didn’t know they’d got me most of the time.

Then I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and the experience of creating adventures while playing tabletop games with your friends.

That is, I suppose, the beauty of a good game or toy. It feeds your imagination and it doesn’t really matter what it is or who it was targeted at as long as it achieves that aim.

You see, despite what those toy marketing gurus might think, girls like to build Lego and boys like to dress up. Thankfully, Father Christmas had this sussed a long time before Marks & Sparks started mithering about it because of the politically-correct brigade and a few crusading politicians.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Breathing new life into an Eighties Christmas classic

The cover of the 2012 festive edition of the Radio Times showing artwork from the new The Snowman and The Snow Dog animated film.

The cover of the 2012 festive edition of the Radio Times showing artwork from the new The Snowman and The Snow Dog animated film.

The season of goodwill officially begins at chez Tideswell household not when our tree goes up (that happened on December 1) but when yours truly brings home the legendary, festive double issue of the Radio Times.

Then follows the time-honoured tradition of leafing through the pages, glass of port in hand, circling the good stuff and planning our TV watching from Christmas Eve through to New Year’s Day.

This year’s cover is a gem which took me back 30 years.

It features new interpretations of Raymond Briggs’s wonderful snowman character which has become instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen Christmas telly in the UK over the last three decades.

At 8pm on Christmas Eve a sequel to his animated tale The Snowman, will be screened by Channel Four.

The £2m, 24-minute programme was given the thumbs-up by the pleasingly eccentric Briggs, now aged 78, as it has been hand-drawn rather than computer-generated.

The Snowman And The Snow Dog will doubtless attract a new generation of fans while leaving big kids like myself basking in a nostalgic glow.

The original The Snowman is one of our most played DVDs. My children love it and it takes me back to its first airing on Boxing Day, 1982, when I was just 10 years old.

Based on Briggs’s children’s book without words, which was first published in 1978, the television adaptation – supported by an orchestral score and the wonderful Walking in the Air, sung by St. Paul’s Cathedral choir boy Peter Auty – was a sensation.

Nominated for an Academy Award, The Snowman has been a staple of Christmas in British homes ever since.

The release of the single Walking in the Air several years later by Welsh chorister Aled Jones made him a household name.

There is something incredibly evocative about the simple, rather clunky animation of the Eighties original, which tells the story of a boy who lovingly crafts a snowman one winter’s day.

At the stroke of midnight the snowman comes to life and he and his young creator have a memorable adventure involving a flight over land and sea and a meeting with Father Christmas.

When I first watched the film one particular moment captivated me.

A little girl is looking out of her bedroom window on Christmas Eve and sees The Snowman and his maker flying through the sky, hand-in-hand.

Her mouth opens in surprise and she looks to a nearby Christmas card which shows Santa Claus and his reindeer, wondering what she has seen on this most magical of nights.

That could have been me who spent so many Christmas Eve’s peering out of the window of the bedroom I shared with my younger brother Matthew looking for that elusive sleigh and listening out for bells.

The Snowman’s genius, however, is that it actually ends on a melancholy note when the boy of the story goes outside the following morning, wearing a dressing gown and slippers, to discover his creation has melted.

Wondering whether or not the events of the previous night was just a dream, he discovers that he still has the scarf given to him by Father Christmas.

It is both sad and uplifting at the same time.

The success of The Snowman owes much to the creativity of team who brought it to the small screen.

In Briggs’s original book the boy does not visit Father Christmas and there is no Christmas tree in his house.

Indeed, all of the festive elements were added for the TV version and, to my mind, it is these ingredients lift it beyond simple make-believe and make its accessible to so many.

There are several versions of the tale.

An alternative introduction to the television film is sometimes used which shows David Bowie reciting the introduction to the story rather than author Briggs.

There is even a stage version of The Snowman which has no words other than the song Walking in the Air.

However, the original is still my favourite and I’ve got a feeling that the sequel, made with love and due respect for this Eighties masterpiece, will be equally charming.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Out with the cane and in with GCSEs for the Class of ’88

I will admit it. I still have to resist the urge to refer to John Lamont as ‘Sir’. I guess we’re all the same when it comes to our teachers.

In our heads we revert back to the days when these individuals were colossally important figures in our lives.

John never taught me and so, mercifully, I don’t have a nickname for him like ‘Sweaty’ or ‘Doc’ – as we did for other teachers.

He was simply ‘Mr Lamont’, head of English at Holden Lane High School in Sneyd Green. Crucially, for the purposes of this article, he also became our ‘head of year’ – which means no-one is better placed than he to run the rule over the Class of ’88.

John said: “Becoming head of year in the mid-Eighties is something I look back on with great fondness as perhaps one of the most enjoyable periods of the my teaching career.

“It meant that I could better get to know many of the pupils and it really helped me to learn more about the diverse community we drew youngsters from.”

John, now aged 62, is a Londoner who came to study at Keele University for four years and then never left North Staffordshire.

He began his teaching career in 1972 – spending seven years at Longton High School before moving on to Maryhill High School in Kidsgrove for a couple of years.

He joined the staff at Holden Lane High in 1981 and watched it grow to become the biggest school in the city.

With my rose-tinted spectacles hooked firmly on, I look back on the Eighties as a more innocent time when discipline was better in schools.

After all, there was no internet, no cyber-bullying and no mobile telephones to be confiscated.

John’s take on it is slightly different, however. He said: “The challenges facing teachers are different because of the technology that’s available these days – something which I just caught the start of, really, before I retired.

“I wouldn’t describe the Eighties as more innocent but I know what you mean. It was certainly easier back then to organise events and school trips and the like because there wasn’t all the form-filling and risk assessments or health and safety considerations.

“This has perhaps taken some of the fun out of the system by making it harder for teachers to be creative and give students different experiences.”

By experiences I think John means the wonderful eccentricity of the likes of my history teacher Geoff Ball who – with his clipboard under his arm – was the scourge of the school corridors, dishing out lines and detention for all.

Nevertheless, his brilliant teaching and classroom museum inspired me to work hard and get an ‘A’ when I left.

John is also talking about regular days out to the ice rink in Telford and numerous educational visits – including holidays to places like Valkenburg in Holland which was my first trip abroad.

He recalls one trip to Switzerland where, because of the unusual male/female signs on the toilet doors, he managed to persuade one pupil to roll up his trouser legs before going to spend a penny. No, it wasn’t me.

There was also the annual end of year show (they call it a prom these days) which once involved some of the lads in my year taking part in a beauty pageant and yours truly dressing up as Santa Claus for a Christmas ‘Blind date’ contest.

I can only apologise to Sarah Harrison who had to endure a candlelit meal with me in the dinner hall.

The Eighties was a time of huge changes in the education system – both nationally and locally.

The cane was banned in schools in 1986 – just too late to prevent a 13-year-old Martin Tideswell having it for back-chatting our form tutor, Mr Jones.

Then in 1988 my year group became the first to sit the new GCSE exams which, controversially, introduced coursework to the grading system.

John, who retired in 2010 and lives in Madeley, said: “During the Eighties there was a big change in the way in which the teaching of secondary school children was approached.

“Previously youngsters in the lower streams who were less academically gifted would perhaps have been earmarked for jobs in the pits or on the potbanks. Brighter children would have gone to work in a bank or carried on their studies at Sixth Form College.

“There had been plenty of jobs around but suddenly the landscape changed and there was a real emphasis on making sure children left school with as many qualifications as possible.

“Education became more tailored to the individual which was definitely a change for the better.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Tonnes of snow… and a Christmas to savour with my family

On Christmas Eve 1981 the snow lay three inches thick across the Potteries. It wasn’t the Slush Puppy stuff we’ve been having in recent weeks, either – it was proper, deep snow.

In fact, we were in the grip of the record-breaking, snowiest (I am told there is such a word) December of the 20th Century.

It was an exceptional month, weather-wise. During the night of December 12 to 13 temperatures plummeted to below minus 18 across the UK.

Even the Queen did not escape the snow – ending up stranded for several hours in a Cotswold pub on December 14.

High winds caused havoc on coastal waters and on December 19 the Penlee lifeboat capsized off the Cornish coast as it went to the aid of crippled cargo ship Union Star. Sixteen lives were lost.

After a heavy snowfall on December 21 a blanket of the white stuff covered most of the country – up to 33cm deep in parts of the Midlands.

Yours truly was only nine at the time and my brother Matthew was five. We were off school and the weather was perfect.

We were beyond excited.

Not only was Father Christmas due in Sneyd Green but we had enough of the white stuff to build whacking great snowmen, have snowball fights and – because we lived on a hill –
go sledging down the road.

As usual, Christmas Eve involved Matt and I getting an early-ish night and doing our best to get off to sleep while wondering what new toys we would wake up to.

It is interesting to note that the average wage at the time was £6,000 per year (the equivalent of around £19,000 in today’s money). Petrol was 28 pence per litre, bread was 33p and a pint of milk 17p.

Meanwhile my dad’s festive pint down his local would have cost him and my grandad 35p.

In truth it was to be a sparse Christmas for many as the recession tightened its grip on Britain.

December 1981 was actually the month that a certain Arthur Scargill became President-elect of the National Union of Mineworkers. And we all know what happened after that.

Despite this austere backdrop, Matt and I came downstairs on that frosty Christmas day morning to find that Santa had once again delivered two sacks crammed full of presents.

They included a version of the top-selling toy of the previous year – the Rubik’s ball or snake puzzle – but not 1981’s must-have: Lego’s first electric train set. Not that Matt and I cared, like.

My nan and grandad, Ethel and Frank, arrived from Bentilee mid-morning and we stuffed our faces with turkey dinner, mince pies, Christmas cake and After Eight mints before grandad fell asleep in front of the fire.

It may have been the food, the couple of pints he’d supped down the Holden Bridge pub, or more likely the Queen’s Speech which finished him off.

Her Majesty told us all of her joy at seeing her eldest son tying the knot with Lady Diana Spencer earlier in the year.

She also underlined the importance of the International Year of Disabled People and made a special mention of her subjects in Northern Ireland who were living through the troubles.

Another television must-see that year was, of course, Top Of The Pops which boasted a performance of the Christmas number one – Don’t You Want Me? by The Human League. (A proper pop song in the days before the X-Factor dictated which pretty boy or girl got to number one).

BBC1’s other festive delights were shows by mad-cap comedian Kenny Everett and impressionist Mike Yarwood while its Christmas day highlights included Jim’ll Fix It, The Two Ronnies, The Paul Daniels’ Magic Show and Dallas.

Meanwhile, over on ITV we all thought Sarah Kennedy, Henry Kelly and Jeremy Beadle were Game For A Laugh.

Matt and I went to bed happy, full to bursting and knowing the snow would still be there on Boxing Day. Along with a pile of turkey.

Even against a background of enormous economic uncertainty – not dissimilar to that which we face today – the memories of Christmas 1981 remain golden for me and I know exactly who to thank for that.

Merry Christmas, mum and dad.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

After 38 years I finally got to meet the jolly old elf

There’s a lot to be said for never growing up. It is my personal defence mechanism against the slings and arrows that life throws at me.
It also means that instead of being dragged down by the crass commercialisation of the festive season I squeeze every possible drop of cheer from the month of December.
Instead of moaning about having to write tonnes of greetings cards to colleagues or the bunfight that is Christmas shopping up ’Anley, I look forward to both.
Not for me the round-robin email prefixed by the less-than-convincing “I am giving £1 to the Save The Porpoise Foundation this year in lieu of Christmas cards”.
To people like that I say: Stop being lazy and pretending you are into recycling. You know who you are…
On Christmas Eve I go to bed full of memories of staring into the night sky as a child – hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of something streaking across the sky – while praying for snow.
I can honestly say that it wasn’t just about the presents, either.
It was about singing carols at Wesley Hall Methodist Church (they were a blessed relief from the usual turgid hymns) and hearing the wonderful tale of the first Christmas.
It was about the thank-yous from the people of Smallthorne to yours truly for his year-long endeavours as a Sentinel paperboy.
It was about the excitement I felt when I heard my beloved nan and grandad arrive on Christmas Day morning on their Lambretta scooter.
It was about pigs in blankets on my roast dinner, the rare treat that was turkey and watching the Top Of The Pops Christmas special.
It was about reading Clement Clarke Moore’s enchanting poem Twas The Night Before Christmas.
It was also about Santa Claus: That most mysterious of men who holds the dreams of so many children in his mittened hands.
A few days ago I realised my childhood ambition and met the jolly old elf.
Never growing up also means that I didn’t feel the cold – even though it was minus 20 – and was instead able to focus on the wonder that appeared before me.
For as the snowmobile pulling our sled ground to a halt in the middle of the forest, there – in the semi-darkness of late afternoon in Lapland – loomed the most magical of sights.
Three reindeer (presumably Dasher, Dancer and Prancer) were standing in the silence tethered to a sleigh.
My daughter Lois’s face was a picture – a strange mixture of surprise, awe and elation. Her younger sister Mina was already scrabbling to exit the sled to take a closer look at the mythical beasts.
This was why we had flown to the Arctic Circle. We saved up for it because it cost a small fortune and we won’t be going abroad again anytime soon.
Still, it was worth every penny.
The reindeer took us along a trail only they knew to a little cabin where Santa, seated by a roaring log fire, was waiting.
Lois immediately ran over to give him a hug followed swiftly by Mina.
What followed was pure magic as my little ’uns eventually overcame their stunned shyness to tell Father Christmas how they had behaved this year and exactly what they wanted in their stockings.
I defy even the most hard-hearted of humbug merchants not to have been melted by the moment.
We also rode on a sled pulled by huskies and tobogganed for England but nothing quite compared with meeting the great man himself after 38 years of waiting.
I think the American author Mary Ellen Chase perhaps put it best when she wrote: “Christmas… is not a date. It is a state of mind.”
You see, it may be cold and it may be dark. We may be mithered about our jobs and be beset by financial problems.
The immediate future may look bleak.
But in a couple of weeks, for one day at least, we can forget our worries, be children once more, let Santa take the strain and embrace the spirit of Christmas.