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Death by a thousand inspections;Last word;Opinion

Back in the year 1001 someone no doubt remarked: "It's going to be a long millennium." As we enter 1999 the question is whether the new millennium will bother to turn up at the end of the year. It must be tempting to hang back a bit, hoping the planet will have recovered.

Like its recent predecessors 1998 was a funny mixture, except that there were far more good points. Among the best events was the injection of significant financial support. After years of blight, when a quarter of primary schools were only spending pound;5 per pupil per annum or less on books, the two instalments of pound;1,000 for every school were most welcome.

Even better news was the announcement that more than pound;5 billion will be spent improving buildings. For years we have heard only cheerless messages about the state of school buildings.

The previous government believed in the Blu-Tack principle: since pound;3bn or pound;4bn would be needed to repair schools, the whole matter was beyond hope, so forget it, or Blu-Tack it.

In Victorian times three-decker schools, with proper lighting and running water, were a model for children of the standard of living they could expect if they worked hard and did well. Nowadays, when it rains heavily, many children believe their headteacher is an Indian chief called Running Water. Pointing to a leak their teacher says "Look, running water", whereupon the head rushes in.

After years of disgraceful neglect there is now a genuine prospect that schools might once more be able to offer a decent, instead of a squalid environment.

As ever in recent years there were negative events in 1998. Most of the hilarity was provided by agencies like the Office for Standards in Education and the Teacher Training Agency. I loved the story of the school with one part-time pupil that was given a full Monty inspection by OFSTED. 100 per cent of the pupils were doing well. Once the ignition has been switched on nothing can stop the juggernaut, as David Hart pointed out at the time.

Less hilarious has been the Teacher Training Agency's alienation of the very universities that provide most of our new teachers. Many vice-chancellors are so fed up with the TTA they would pull out of teacher training, were it not for their commitment to preparing the next generation of teachers.

Teacher training is currently being inspected to death. I was observed by 10 different inspectors in one year. All were intelligent and professional. It is the system that is wrong, not the people.

When my son took a teacher training course he was also inspected. My wife is a former infants teacher, so I thought of lining up a reception class so OFSTED could do the lot of us. I wonder if they do special offers, like family discounts, or free child inspections.

Incidentally, try and have a read some time of the OFSTED in-house magazine, called the Standard (geddit?). It has poems by Ofstedders, like these two little belters in last autumn's issue:

"Mister Chris Woodhead Mightn't make a very good head.

His remarks about teachers Have upset the poor creatures."

and the second:

"HM's Chief Inspector Is keen on architecture.

He'd need a very big house To cohabit with Brighouse."

It is a great pity that only Woodhead and his pals are able to slap their thighs with mirth at such razor-sharp wit. With an "above the national average" wordsmith like that around, why is the nation hunting for a poet laureate?

The Teacher Training Agency did not disappoint in the mirth stakes in 1998. Belatedly reacting to the teacher shortage, which everyone else had predicted years earlier, they decided the solution lay in a cinema advertising campaign. In answer to criticisms, the reply was that the advert had produced lots of enquiries. What a pity it didn't produce lots of teachers.

Early in the new year, apparently, there are going to be yet more cinema adverts. I can't wait. The Oscar-winning film Carry on Teacher Training Agency may feature a resurrected Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Sid James, probably inspecting empty classrooms.

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