Regular readers may recall this Agnew’s previous appearances in this column in his former guise as Academies Minister. The eminence grise behind the Inspiration Trust, from where we also got our Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza, he once made an offer we could almost all refuse. Putting accountants on the road, he promised a bottle of champagne to any school where his people couldn’t find savings, though whether Chateau Co-op or Pol Roger remained mysterious. ‘Use curriculum driven budgeting’ he cried, as if there was any other sensible way of desperately trying to make four bob educate two thousand people for thirty-eight weeks.
I can forgive him all for this, however, for his magnificent appearance in the Lords last week, resigning furiously over the amount of money wasted by government through ‘schoolboy errors, arrogance, indolence and ignorance’. As minister in charge of counter-fraud he had no alternative but to resign, what with the mountains of fraud hemming him in on every side.
Such behaviour has a touch of retro-novelty in these troubled times. A man is given a job to do, finds he can’t and so resigns. Gosh. From Richard Cromwell to John Major this was once taken as read as principled behaviour, but standards have slipped this last decade and now it seems perfectly reasonable for the power-mad to cling to power no matter what. I write, of course, before the publication of that report, so by the time you read this I may be embarrassingly out of date.
We’re quite big on schoolboy errors here, as we have a lot of actual schoolboys. Picture the scene. A class of twelve-year olds is released form bondage at 12:20 to go to lunch. Queues form in a big community so it’s in their interest to stave off starvation by pegging it down the corridor the faster to bucket across the yard. A man of some experience plonks himself sturdily in their way and after cartoon screeching-to-halts the matter is put up for discussion. He sympathises, but makes them walk. I know what you’re doing because I used to do it. It’s obvious, but still a bit dangerous, you have to walk in the same way that I had to walk. Sorry, lunchers. Committing traditional mistakes anew is a schoolboy error. Getting caught is a schoolboy error.
But there’s a reason for the nomenclature. Schoolboys have infuriating, reckless and bizarre in their job description. While their synapses are forming they’re meant to make errors because they don’t know any better. From footballs to eating to hoods indoors and missing homework, schoolboys through the ages have tended to the random and boisterous, to the flying-by-the-seat-of-the pants, to justifying actions in risible ways, citing necessity, dogs, love or hunger. They don’t always take instruction and they can make you seize your own head in despair.
Much is forgivable in the young but mind-boggling in the old. I wouldn’t expect much sympathy if all of my countless and tedious parent emails since March 2020 had begun with ‘I don’t know what’s right or wrong’ or ‘no-one’s told me what to do’. We’ve lived through a time when everyone was telling us what to do and we, the people, largely embraced it with stoicism and good sense. Birthdays were unmarked, family celebrations postponed, spontaneity disappeared. We thought everyone was doing it – but it seems not.
There’s nothing wrong with childlike-ness. Being relatively innocent and inquisitive, seeking to enjoy life in the moment and to its fullest has a lot to be said for it. We rate optimism and inquisitiveness on planet Tallis. Childishness is another matter. Seeking to excuse oneself, refusing to learn from mistakes, wiggling around the facts and expecting others to love your whim and caprice so much that you can do what you like is not adult, moral behaviour. Bleak House may be Dickens’ finest novel but the creepiest, flesh-crawling-est character is the venial Harold Skimpole, masking greed and irresponsibility in tedious foibles while fleecing his friends and abandoning his dependents.
It's not for me to say what must be done on the national stage (though you might guess what I think), but I refer you to previous messages. Schools are where society looks after its young until they’re old enough to take on the mantle of adult citizenship. All adults are role models to the young, and the higher they’re exalted, the more important the modelling. We have standards for public life, of selflessness, integrity, openness, honesty, objectivity, accountability and leadership. They’re not hard, but they need attention. It’s not always fun to be good, but it is always right.
Agnew’s an unlikely hero. He couldn’t abide being made a fool of and nor, I think, can the rest of us. For me, the example being set to the young is irretrievable. It undermines the democracy and the rule of law that we’re meant to teach as a Fundamental British Values for Pete’s sake. All our lives have been made materially harder by sloppy national leadership.
I’m enjoying Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House. I like a bit of good chairing and he’s a delight. Last week he was trying to calm everyone down, little knowing that he’d still have to be doing it a week later. ‘You may not like this day’ he advised, ‘but this is the day we’ve got’. May it pass briskly, for all of our children’s sakes.