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Charity begins

Inset means two things: a lie-in and shopping. At least it used to

Nigel Horsmel is on my case again. The restraining order I took out against the deputy head has expired and he's back to his old space-invading self.

The pretext for today's intimate moment is a discussion about training.

"Now that you're a middle leader, you need to toughen up, Miss Casement," he leers. He's so close I can see his nose hair quivering.

Middle leader? It's a new one on me, and, anyway, who am I supposed to lead? The head has refused to finance cover for me while I am standing in for Judith Crock, my head of department, who hasn't been seen since the start of term. (Well, not in school. She's been spotted several times at the Waitrose deli counter, and someone saw her picture on an advert for Yolates classes at the local gym.) Which leaves me, as head of history, with one full-time member of staff: Angel Montague, an NQT who could easily pass for a member of Year 8. Angel needs a mother not a subject leader, as the frequency and urgent tone of her midnight text messages suggests.

Horsmel continues. "It's one thing organising a piss-up with your union chums at the Horseshoes, Charity, but leadership requires more refined skills. I want you to take a day's Inset." He flings me a glossy brochure with a picture of Buck's Fizz performing at the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest on the cover. Across the top are the words: "Making your mind up: how to lead from the middle".

I scan the pages for the time and venue. These are the only two things that matter when assessing the value of a training course. Being bored unconscious is a lot more bearable if it takes place in a four-star hotel or a well-appointed conference centre within easy reach of some decent shopping.

This grim-sounding affair is taking place at somewhere called the Elite Suite in Paddington, and the brochure doesn't even say what's on the lunch menu. Then the killer: start 8am prompt. 8am! Inset never begins before 10, and it's understood that most people will arrive an hour late, complaining noisily about the state of public transport while clutching bulging Selfridges bags.

So it is that, one drizzly autumnal morning, I find myself in the basement of a seedy west London hotel sitting next to a man wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan "I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not so sure". He tells me he had it printed specially, and he's surprised I don't recognise his name because he's known across the LEA as the Inset joker.

I'm scanning the room for escape routes when the interactive whiteboard lights up and the words "Managing active decisions (MAD)" appear. A young man in a beige suit jogs into the room and bellows at us: "You've just taken control of your department and the head tells you to cut your budget by 30 per cent. What do you do?"

"Sack the management team?" someone at the back suggests.

"No!" squeals the trainer. "You offer to cut the budget by 50 per cent. Now that's an active decision!"

The morning goes slowly. Lunch offers no respite. "It looks like the catering budget's been slashed in half," someone mutters, staring at a desiccated sandwich.

I feel as lifeless as the scrap of lollo rosso on my plate. Selfridges here I come.

Next week: Half-term hangover

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