5th December 1997, 12:00am



Did Stephen Byers deliver a coded verdict on New Labour as he went down on his knees before the assembled independent school heads to beg forgiveness for his party's past sins?

It was a moving performance from Mr B as he delivered everything the Girls' Schools Association had asked for (bar lots of money) and paid them lots of nice compliments about how high their standards were, how good their teachers were, how shiny their shoes were (OK, Carborundum made that last bit up).

He also complimented them on how erudite and well-read they were ... which is the point at which Carborundum would like to think we spotted Steve giving a sympathetic nod to his old colleagues on the Left who found the whole thing a bit hard to stomach.

The school standards minister told how he had spent the trip between London and Bristol frantically trying to think of an amusingly apposite literary reference to drop into his speech.

This, remember, is a conference where the president can win hearty guffaws for saying Labour consultation papers fall "thick as autumnal leaves ... in Vallombrosa". Carborundum is still chuckling over that one. (It's Milton, by the way: Paradise Lost.) Anyway, Mr B came up with two possibilities, from what - he said - were the only two opening sentences of novels he knew.

The correct, on-message, New Labour choice was from L P Hartley's The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

This was intended as a reflection of how much New Labour has changed, the bright new dawn, new partnership, and so on, and so on.

There is a different interpretation and one which more closely chimes with the other, discarded quote which the minister had dredged from his memory of a battered Penguin classic. A quote for those of us who remember, as Steve does, the days when Labour was implacably opposed to private schools.

"It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13." Go on - you remember. Big Brother, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. Peter Mandelson's bible. 1984. Very New Labour.

A portable bar complete with beer engines was a welcome sight earlier this week when Carborundum took a stroll along the committee corridor at the Palace of Westminster.

The bar - part of a brewers' promotion - was deserted as MPs and members of the press mooched to committee room 19 to see the Education Select Committee at work at its 10.45am session.

But step forward Don Foster, MP for Bath and the Lib Dems' education spokesman, who arrived a little late for the proceedings. "I apologise for my late arrival," he said. "I was drinking beer at an ungodly hour, for local PR purposes."

Oh, the trials some have to endure.

December is upon us, Christmas lights illuminate town centres, Santa is in his grotto, and the last posting date looms for college principals wanting a bit of public money.

The instructions come in a friendly-sounding document called How To Apply for Funding. But the Devil (who, as we all know, whoops it up in the details) is in a slim volume which eager college financiers received through the post the other day.

The nattily titled Supplement to Circular 9738 is the Further Education Funding Council's way of telling colleges how much cash they can expect for doing this or that.

It's all neatly summed up in a table, giving details of: Median annual guided learning hours; inter-quartile range as percentage of median; equivalent loadband; predominant loadband; and basic on-programme units for predominant loadband, for each qualification offered by the colleges.

Confused? You will be.

Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend Council in South Wales and (voluble) education spokesman on the Welsh Local Government Association, thinks the Government's PR campaign to recruit teachers is a bit wrong-headed. "Children want to be David Seaman, not David Seaman's teacher," he pointed out at a conference of Welsh education officers last week. But above all, he said, it was a question of status and rewards. He himself had supported Ho Chi Minh in his youth, but kids these days were more materialistic.

His daughter, now, had been most impressed by the gleaming Shogun in which David Matthews, Bridgend's director of education, had drawn up in front of their house. "What's he do, Dad?" she screeched. "Look at his car!" She added, just to twist the knife: "Look at your car!" "She won't be going into politics," said Mr Jones. More to the point, she won't be going into teaching - except, perhaps, as a step on the ladder to a post as a chief education officer.

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