Jason Goodwin: ‘At my finishing school, students might learn how to wash up and wire a plug

Our spectator columnist mules over the unfortunate truth that knowledge essential to adult life, such as how to file a tax return or wire a plug, is so missing from the curriculum of our schools.

When people set their work expenses against tax,’ said my niece, in a voice of innocent enquiry, ‘like a lunch, or whatever? Do they get it back?’ My niece is a highly intelligent working woman in her mid-20s. She’s freelance and self-employed. I pondered her enquiry.

‘The tax man lets you off the tax you would have paid on the money you spent,’ I explained, cautiously. ‘He won’t actually buy your lunch.’

She considered this for a moment and then we both laughed, perhaps imagining her at the Ritz, ordering pistache de homard bleu, émulsion crémeuse at the taxpayer’s expense, washed down with a good Montrachet.

‘I was summoned to the Walworth Road the very next day, to explain why I hadn’t filed my tax return’

She’s not the first young person to be confused. Years ago, when I, too, was young, I was standing in a supermarket queue when my hand closed on a brown envelope that I’d stuffed into my jacket pocket some weeks earlier. I opened it in the safety of the queue and read, to my astonishment, that I was summoned to the Walworth Road the very next day, to explain why I hadn’t filed my tax return.

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I called a wiser, older friend, who assured me that, with my meagre income, I’d go to a small office and have a discussion with a kindly tax collector, who would explain what I had to do to pay my tax, a subject on which I had no opinion whatever.

The Cuming Museum in Old Walworth Town Hall on Walworth Road

I arrived at the Victorian Gothic, striped humbug of a town hall at Elephant and Castle, which seemed deserted except for a doorman, who pointed me down a corridor to a door at the far end. The corridor was dimly lit, and none of the offices seemed to be occupied.

When I reached the door, I turned the handle and stepped into what I fully expected to be a small office, equipped with a desk and a kindly tax man.

One of my favourite children’s books, Ferdinand the Bull, follows the adventures of a pacific Spanish bull who likes to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. One day, he sits on a bee and his maddened frenzy so impresses the visiting bullfight impresarios that a later illustration shows Ferdinand peering into a very large bullring, where thousands of spectators eagerly await his furious combat with a matador.

‘I advanced, humbled and afraid, to be given a lecture on civic duty’

In the event, Ferdinand merely sits down and smells the flowers that the Spanish ladies are wearing in their hair. So it was, minus flowers, when I stepped through the door. From a dingy municipal council corridor I shot out into a vast chamber, whose upper reaches faded into the darkness, but appeared to contain galleries of seats.

In the middle, flung into terrible relief by spotlights, half a dozen human gargoyles sat at an enormous round table, wearing mayorial chains and tricorn hats. A major domo announced my name and I advanced, humbled and afraid, to an empty chair, to be given a lecture on civic duty.

With the wisdom of advancing years, I now see that we ought to teach children basic life skills before we unleash adulthood on them. The young people already do a class called PSHE, which tells them how and how not to let the birds mix with the bees, but is thin on tax affairs and mortgage deals. At my finishing school, students might learn how to wash up, wire a plug, change a fuse and inflate their tyres at a garage. They would be given three surefire recipes for meals anyone can make for £1.

Learning a few poems by heart would be good, too, in case they are ever stuck at an airport. Or gaoled, indeed, for messing up their tax returns.

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