One gloomy late winter morning I found myself eagerly tripping along to Cheltenham racecourse to take part in the Government's latest national "conversation" with secondary heads. In case anyone needs reminding, these are promoted as crucial consultation meetings, offering, as the bumph puts it, the opportunity for us to take charge of planning the education agenda.
It wasn't so much a sense of duty or even decency in response to being asked, or the notion that it must be important since it's costing so much, which persuaded me to attend. I was genuinely motivated by the prospect of finally getting a handle on what the Government thought about the Tomlinson proposals. The sane face of the DfES, Peter Housden, was billed to be speaking, and there was always the outside chance that the new Education Secretary would decide that this was a meeting worth attending. I have to confess that, sadly, the conference did not live up even to my limited expectations. Ruth Kelly did not seize the moment. Peter Housden didn't attend either, and we were treated to possibly as much as half a sentence on the Tomlinson report, though I was none the wiser if it was in favour or against. This statement, part of the Government's supposed rallying call to the support of current initiatives, was the most limited and discouraging survey of the future of education I've heard in my whole career.
If "education, education, education" was the message in 1997, it emphatically isn't in 2005. Even before this fiasco, it had seemed odd, at the beginning of the day, to be warned that the most inspirational speaker was the one who wasn't going to talk about education. Since he was also the last to speak, presumably this was a cunning tactic to try to persuade somebody to stay till then. One begins to wonder what exactly the purpose of the day was, other than perhaps somehow to get to the other end.
Certainly there seemed to be a misconception in the air that we'd all turned up to be dazzled by the ingenuity of others either inside or outside education.
The remaining offerings from the platform featured heads who are definitely "on message" in terms of government jargon. First we were treated to a video (obviously it was too much to hope that we could escape entirely from this particular brand of torture) featuring one of secondary education's recently elevated "knights". Do administrators and the Government really think most of us aspire to this sort of nonsense? Do they imagine that heads relish seeing glossy promotions of other people's schools or that they might learn from the experience?
This might go down well with the embassies of some foreign potentate but it's about time they grasped that the response here is more likely to be cringing with embarrassment or bristling with agitation. In this instance the fare on view was sound educational practice, but there wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and having to sit through it definitely wasn't a good use of time. When each table was ordered to find "our top question" for the mediocre panel assembled, I simply could not take any more. As I shambled away, I was deflated by being so patronised and scandalised by the cost of hiring such a magnificent venue and getting everyone there, and by the enormous amount of time that could have been more profitably spent. Worse, though, I sensed this was the end of any semblance of true involvement in the process of shaping our educational future. It would have been 1984-style control if the delivery hadn't been so poor.
Despite all this, I did take something away from the day: a large carrier bag emblazoned with DfES insignia that I can't be seen dead with. It is one of the more delightfully bizarre customs of these occasions that delegates are supplied on arrival with a goody bag, if that's what you can call a leaflet about the new inspection system, a postcard exhorting "Be inspired" and a CD about the so-called new relationship with schools. Actually, the most interesting part of the whole sorry affair was observing so many, no doubt distinguished, heads finding ways to hold a carrier bag and a cup and saucer at the same time.
John Claydon is head of Wyedean school, Chepstow