When the social history of our time is written, I think the episode of the School Gate Pyjamas could well figure as an illumination of contemporary attitudes to authority.
It was made widely known that the head teacher at a primary school in Darlington, Kate Chisholm, issued a request to parents not to arrive at school in the morning still wearing pyjamas or other night-wear. “If we are to raise standards, it’s not too much to ask parents to have a wash and get dressed,” she decreed.
Now, I won’t swear that I never turned up at the school gates donned in something garish, inappropriate or embarrassing (the daily dread of a child is “embarrassment”), though I think even I would have drawn the line at a nightie and slippers, as it seems some of Ms Chisholm’s parents favour.
Respectability isn’t the be-all and end-all, and appearances aren’t everything either. Yet the significant aspect of the Pyjama Question lay in the parental reaction.
Far from accepting the idea that the head teacher was entitled to set standards, a group of mothers protested vehemently – and some even redoubled their efforts to flaunt their pyjamas and nightwear. A “hardcore” group of parents branded Ms Chisholm “snobbish”: the head says she has also had physical and verbal abuse for her stand against the morning jim-jams.
The episode illustrates what every experienced head teacher has told me in recent times: the discipline problem in schools is not always with the pupils – but with the parents. The biggest social change in education over the last 30 years is that so many parents do not now respect the authority of the head, or the teachers.
“Correct little Johnny 30 years ago, and the parent would tell little Johnny to behave better. Correct little Johnny today, and the parent is angrily marching into my study threatening the Human Rights Act,” says one retiring head.
One of the themes of our time is the challenge to authority. Maybe authority sometimes needs to be challenged; but there can be no standards, and no constructive framework, without good authority. The defiant jim-jam parents are a metaphor of authority’s decline.
Many were the tributes paid to Terry Wogan, and rightly so. Yet an important point was sometimes missed: at a nadir of Anglo-Irish relations – mid-1970s to mid-1980s – Terry Wogan flew the flag for the template of the affable, charming and humane Irishman when there were so many darker stereotypes linked to bullets and bombs.
The political life of the late Cecil Parkinson ended sadly: an accomplished and well-liked politician whose career faltered when his private life was made public. Sad for everyone: for Parkinson himself, for his wife, for his secretary Sara Keays who bore his child, and no doubt for his wider family and friends.
Obituaries last week claimed that Cecil Parkinson pressed Ms Keays to have an abortion when she discovered that she was pregnant. Actually, I wrote to him around this time – 1983 – and asked him if it was so. He sent me a personal letter, at The Sunday Telegraph (where I then worked) saying: “I would never try to persuade a woman to have an abortion.
It would be abhorrent.”
People do not always speak as they act. But this is what the late Lord Parkinson communicated to me – a clear denial that he would ever advocate an abortion – and I offer it as a vignette of historical witness.
Following Will Gore’s recommendation last week, I duly went to see Spotlight – the multi-Oscar-nominated film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of clerical scandals, and Cardinal Bernard Law’s apparent cover-up.
Spotlight shows what journalism can do very well: investigate a story, digging away at it until all is revealed. And it demonstrates what journalism should do, too, which is to question power.
But it also illustrates what journalism can seldom do: explain the deep wellsprings of a human problem. The movie tells much, but explains little. You need a novelist, a psychologist, a historian of perception to delve into what goes wrong with the human psyche, and whether paedophilia is a vice, a crime, a weakness or a psychosexual illness.