12th December 1997, 12:00am



Carborundum takes his hat off this week to the ingenious youngsters of St Helens, who have achieved what many teachers thought impossible . . . and found a use for the national curriculum.

The pupils of Sutton Oak Primary have latched on to the dozens of hefty hardback folders delivered to their school a decade ago, containing the mountainous details of the then-new curriculum.

One review by Sir Ron Dearing later, and many of these folders - multiple sets of 10 covering each subject of the curriculum - are now gathering dust. But not at Sutton Oak, where enterprising Year 6 pupils are using them to bolster the coffers of their Merseyside school.

Under the auspices of teachers Mark Thomas and Karen Davison, they have set up their own business to re-cover the folders and sell them on at Pounds 1 a time - Pounds 1.50 if you want your own deluxe edition with your name in neat calligraphy on the front and an extra folder inside.

In just a couple of weeks they have sold 50, and the supply in school shows no sign of drying up. When it does, the pupils plan to go to other schools in the area to buy up more supplies.

"It's an almost unexpendable resource," Mr Thomas says. "Everybody was cursing them when they came out, but now they're being put to good use."

Sales to date have been limited to fellow junior pupils, with covers decorated with pop stars and footballers. But they plan to diversify to infants (with cartoon characters), local businesses and parents. The children all have jobs, from managing director, accountants and advertising, right down to security guards to protect the dosh.

It's all good cross-curricular stuff - and it's all done with official permission, from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which under its previous incarnation as SCAA issued the folders in the first place. Pupils Siobhan Sildes and Karrie Philips wrote to the authority, which checked with the DFEE and duly gave its blessing.

The only thing the two classes have not been able to do is find a use for the folders' contents. Mr Thomas confesses to shoving them all in a black bin bag which he slung into a recycling skip.

"That's our next project - finding something useful to do with the contents, " he says. "Paper aeroplanes, maybe . . ."

Commiserations to Lord Skidelsky, forced to pull out of this week's Guardian education debate with Michael Barber on account of a bad back. Commiserations also to Don Foster, Lib Dem education spokesman, forced to pull out on account of Big Brother.

Dapper Don, Bath's most smartly-dressed MP, was the Grauniad's choice to replace Lord S and propose Tuesday's motion criticising growing centralisation in education. After much arm-twisting on Saturday from worried Guardian education editor John Carvel, Don agreed to give up valuable drinking time to fit the event into his busy schedule and take on the head of the DFEE's standards unit. (Actually Carborundum still likes to think of Professor Barber as Hackney's ex-education chair).

Foster had already despatched his minions to write his speech, when an apologetic Carvel phoned to say, er sorry, his services were no longer required - on the instructions of the Government itself.

Steve Byers, school standards supremo, apparently vetoed the pairing on the grounds of rules which state that civil servants (Barber) are not allowed to debate in public with MPs (Foster).

Richard Pring, education professor at Oxford University, was drafted in and duly delivered a withering criticism of Labour's Big Brother tendencies. How apt.

Anyone harbouring doubts about the new-style college inspections is advised not to read the next item.

Word reaches Carborundum of a "misunderstanding" at South Birmingham, the first college to be inspected by Further Education Funding Council under the new regime introduced this year.

The FEFC inspectors, under pressure to cram their visit OFSTED-style into a week, were apparently reluctant to visit some of the courses the college provides off-campus, out in the community, such as construction and vehicle maintenance.

In these days of outreach education, the college prevailed and the inspection team duly travelled to an inner-city annexe, and spent 15 minutes watching young people washing cars - a course activity so unimpressive they declined to grade it.

Only later did it emerge that the chaps from the FEFC had in fact inspected a car valeting centre run by the Prince's Trust, which happens to be next door to the college annexe. As one of those on the receiving end of the inspection ruefully put it, the process was "somewhat erratic".

It probably seemed a coup at the time, but Carborundum wonders how proud the Community Education Development Centre feels now the invitations have gone out for the opening of its new premises in Coventry. Guest speaker is Geoffrey Robinson, Labour's handsomely-endowed Paymaster General.

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