While I accept that variety is the spice of life and that there is nowt so strange as folk, I was bemused by the range of response I received when I approached councils on behalf of a new educational charity. I had perhaps naively supposed that all local authorities had a vested interest in enlightening and developing their schools and children. This supposition was not without foundation, however, since I had approached the Scottish regional authorities on occasions in the past with good results.
With a neat, explanatory letter nestling close to our leaflet, I asked all local authorities in the UK to distribute the leaflet to primary and secondary schools via their internal mailing system. In Scotland, I asked for an additional leaflet for our seminars to be included. There is clearly no obligation on the part of local authorities to do this but I had thought that relevant, non-commercial information would be appropriate to distribute.
I should explain that Aganippe is a new trust offering specialist courses, workshops and other activities to motivate and develop children with specific talents and abilities. In a sense we are dealing with more able children, but we have moved the goalposts slightly because we believe that there are a huge number of children who are not technically gifted but who possess a particular aptitude or passionate interest which needs nurturing. We aim to provide the inspiration to which children in need can respond.
With this clearly stated in our approach to all 138 authorities on November 20, I sat back to process the responses. I have yet to hear from 33. From the outset the responses were so different that I immediately began to keep a record. It has been a chore but an enlightening experience.
I received my first replies in a short time, the first ones unsurprisingly from Scotland (Ayr division, Dumfries and Galloway, Highland) but not exclusively, as Leicestershire, West Glamorgan and the London borough of Merton were in hot pursuit, all happily replying in the affirmative. Most of the replies were positive. One or two demurred but, like Leicester, Stafford and Knowsley, offered the intelligent alternative of coverage in their authority newsletter, which I think is the best method of all. A number agreed but demanded payment ranging from a Pounds 6 nominal charity rate in Avon to Pounds 82 in Birmingham.
Those authorities that declined showed a marked lack of originality and understanding in their refusal, apart from Calderdale where a thoughtful official was at pains to point out that headteachers had collectively decided to discontinue the free distribution service. Other answers were not so convincing. Humberside wished "to avoid accusations of being selective in any support given". The authority apparently "will not, or by any action appear, to endorse private or charitable organisations". This was a common pretext and rather a lame one; for enlightenment and support, read propaganda, obviously.
Others like Cheshire pleaded poverty and brandished that well-used phrase "financial constraints". Some like Lancashire simply branded their mailing system as purely internal and not for external organisations, however relevant. It seems to have escaped the notice of such authorities that some external information may be far more useful than their internal documentation. Coventry said that it would not distribute our material because the authority was offering similar activities and did not want the competition! Dear me. I don't suppose they have ever heard of choice, not even parental choice, it seems. We provide and you will accept. How quaint.
A number of authorities sent or offered a list of all their schools to which we were invited to write. For a fledgling charity with meagre funds earmarked for deserving children, the reality of mailing 25,000 schools individually is rather bleak, whether undertaken ourselves or via a third party. Some authorities even charged for their lists of schools (Pounds 10 in Lancashire). By the end of November, I had heard from 30 authorities. By the end of December, only 30 more. Alarm bells began to ring and early in January I rang the remaining authorities. Virtually all claimed not to have received the letter; a few confessed to having received it but mislaying it. The letters had all been addressed to the directors of education by name, except in Wales where the directors preferred to remain anonymous.
According to the Royal Mail, there had been no irregularities during the period of posting. Whatever the situation, I spent two days on the telephone verifying the correct addressee at each authority and wrote again. Incidentally, I should say that telephone contact with every single authority was pretty efficient albeit, at times, circuitous. Throughout January, more replies came in with a similar range of responses, a further 42 in total. Now in early February, I still await to hear from the 33 authorities that cannot be bothered to write after two letters and a telephone call or whose letters have been lost in the post.
Almost all of the culprits are English. The 12 Scottish regional authorities have replied, and so have the five education and library boards in Northern Ireland. Four out of the eight Welsh authorities have yet to respond. These are a cross-section of county and inner-city authorities. Time will tell if inertia will fall away and efficiency will raise its ugly head.
When I matched responses with the species of authority, the results were curious. Great swathes of county authorities have either put up the shutters or offered limited access. Inner-city areas such as Greater London, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester and Mid Yorkshire have proved extremely interested and helpful. Yet there seems no rhyme nor reason. West Sussex, where we are holding one of our holiday courses, politely declined but the official told me that, across the border, East Sussex still maintained "a man with a van" who spent his days tootling around the county delivering goodies to schools. Mind you, I have yet to hear from East Sussex.
In all, a total of 13 English authorities have not offered the mailing facility. In Wales two, in Northern Ireland one and in Scotland only Grampian issued a terse rejection. This is a touch ironic, since the trust has been conceived and created within Grampian and in the past the region has funded children at similar courses. Three letters and two phone calls later, Grampian acquiesced and allowed distribution at a cost of Pounds 70, the sole Scottish authority to charge. The only consolation is that by April, Aganippe will have "moved" automatically into one of Scotland's new administrative areas, Moray.
I have so far sent out some 15,000 general leaflets about Aganippe, plus more than 3,000 leaflets advertising seminars in Scotland in March. I have to say that I am immensely grateful to the majority of educational authorities whose support means a great deal to us in our first flush of growth.
Questions inevitably arise. What kind of information is actually disseminated to schools? Who makes such decisions? Are financial constraints applied intelligently or are they merely a pretext? Should not schools be encouraged to receive up-to-date educational information from whatever source? If an authority cannot reply politely (whether positively or negatively) to two letters and a telephone call, how efficient is that authority in all its dealings?
One continues to wonder but thank you, o enlightened ones.
Andrew Scott is director of Aganippe, Rosarie House, Mulben, Keith, Banffshire (01542 860383).