Less than 20 years have passed since I turned on the nine o’clock news and saw footage of a toddler in the US whose motor skills had developed to the point where he could use the mouse of his parents’ computer.
The world was captivated by this. It was a time when most adults were frightened of mice – the plastic sort even more than real ones. But what was foreign to us was second nature to this new generation of digital natives.
So it really shouldn’t have been a surprise to read this week that children in British schools are now so used to mobile phones and tablets that they try instinctively to “swipe left” to turn the pages when they are first handed a book. It was one of the headlines to emerge from the annual conferences of the two big teaching unions.
The worry here is not that today’s five-year-olds are evolving in different ways to us, but that so few of them, evidently, are shown a book until they get to school.
Yet in view of what else we heard from the union delegates at Brighton and Birmingham, this should also not have been a surprise. One primary school teacher reported that she and her colleagues were in fear of children as young as four, for whom violence was a normal facet of behaviour. More normal, in fact, than reading.
The teaching union conferences have to be put in some context: they have always been an opportunity for activists to complain about Government education policy, irrespective of the policy in question or which party was pursuing it. Indeed, the National Union of Teachers admitted this week that it had spent more money campaigning at last year’s General Election than Ukip.
But the issues aired at the conferences are a snapshot of school life that is often more telling than all the Ofsted reports and league tables joined together.
This is especially true of the rural communities of North Yorkshire, where books are still precious and education something to be treasured, yet where school life itself is threatened as never before. This was a message not lost on the NUT, some of whose delegates demanded more funding for rural schools where the intake has fallen to levels not otherwise sustainable.
North Yorkshire has about 50 village schools with fewer than 50 pupils. Six have closed in the past year, and a seventh awaits its fate next month. The future of three more is under debate. Of the remainder, many, if not all, are operating at a deficit.
When a school dies, a part of the village dies, too. Its attraction as a place for families to live is diminished, its hope for the future dimmed. Yet Britain needs these villages – not just as destinations for day-trippers but as communities that can sustain and nourish the rural economy upon which we all depend for food.
The NUT was urged by Anne Swift, one of its past presidents and the former head of a rural school in Yorkshire, to pressure the Government to give such establishments protected status which would recognise their particular importance to their communities and place some value on the traditional standards of education they continue to offer.
She’s right, of course. If we can protect historic buildings, why not the organisms that are our living schools? It’s a question of funding that accountants alone cannot resolve.
And the problems are not insoluble. Just two months ago, three primary schools in Wensleydale that had been under threat of closure were spared, albeit with operational changes and the possibility of fewer classes across the sites. Here and elsewhere, constructive community dialogue between government, councils and in some cases churches was allowed to prevail.
But it is the Government with whom the buck stops. A universal education system cannot be one that favours the inner cities and suburbs. The protection and preservation of village schools and the villages themselves should become part of a rural strategy – long overdue – that also encompasses housing and employment and which recognises these communities as a vital part of contemporary life, not monuments to a fondly-remembered past.
If we fail to do this, those communities could disappear in far less than the 20 years it took for our urban youngsters to evolve into the mouse-clicking, page-swiping generation they have become.