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* Schools are understandably thrilled to read they are "above national norms" in their inspection reports. However, parents rumble with concern to hear from the Office for Standards in Education that the schools their children attend are "below national expectations".

Recent clarification from HM Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead might help them all calm down.

What, asked Labour MP for Workington, Dale Campbell-Savours in a parliamentary question, is a national norm? Is it a national statistical average? Is it measured on a pre-determined scale of achievement? Is it based on "level 4" of the curriculum tests for 11-year-olds? Is it at all scientific?

The answer appears to be no.

"OFSTED does not define the terms raised in this question," writes Mr Woodhead in reply. "Terms such as 'in line with national expectations' are those chosen by inspectors to give their view of standards in a subject." This part of the answer is clear - even if disappointing for the scientists - and sounds like OFSTED-speak for "They make it up".

Mr Woodhead's answer then plunges into confusion:

"When evaluating and reporting on what pupils achieve, inspectors must report on 'how the attainment of pupils at each stage of education compares with national averages in terms of results at key stage tests and assessments or where these are not available, expectations for the age group concerned'. Expectations for the age group concerned are those defined by the national curriculum."

As the national curriculum says only that 11-year-olds are expected to be somewhere between levels 2 and 5, it is difficult to know quite what Mr Woodhead means.

Mr Campbell-Savours admits he is scarcely the wiser.

* The distinguished audience at HM Chief Inspector's annual lecture was somewhat mystified by its enigmatic title: Blood on the Tracks . The lecture castigated three eminent professors, Ted Wragg included, for trivialising culture and representing the "heart of darkness" in education.

In the ensuing question-and-answer session, a Bob Dylan aficionado probed the relationship between the lecture's content and the 1974 Dylan album of the same name. The Man Who Inspects Schools for the Queen denied any direct link, although he admitted to listening to the album (one of his favourites) the previous weekend - in case he found any intriguing quotations to add piquancy to his performance. Alas, he found none.

How strange, then, that he should have overlooked the opening lines of one track: "Someone's got it in for me. They're planting stories in the press; whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out, but when they will I can only guess."

* A strange echo reaches Chateau Carborundum from Scotland, where a chief inspector is accused of using questionable evidence to produce national reports which aren't backed by research. The Labour MP for Falkirk East, Michael Connarty, has even demanded that the man be "reined in". Step forward Douglas Osler, HM Senior Chief Inspector in Scotland, who knows a good example when he sees one.

* The latest issue of Cycling Weekly backs the national campaign to boycott teaching. It advises budding Chris Boardmans that the key to avoiding post-training stress is to "cool down gradually, ensure a sound, varied and healthy diet, wash your hands regularly. And don't be a teacher with access to all those bugs kids carry."

* Revenge, betrayal and nail-biting horror" I it must be the international children's book fair at Bologna, where the publishers do their wheeling and dealing in spring. In fact the quote is from the playbill for Stiffs, a thriller-comedy by Jonathan Ashley which, like the fair, has just opened and, again like the fair, is "not for the faint of heart". Jonathan's father Bernard, a prolific children's novelist (including Johnnie's Blitz, Running Scared and the City Limits series) is producing his son's show at the Hen and Chickens theatre, Islington, so he won't be going to Bologna. The more sensitive authors stay well away; even Bernard, who as an ex-primary head is accustomed to walking on the wild side, would rather stick with Stiffs.

* Who said college principals would have less clout under New Labour than with Old Tories?

Last week the principals proved they could move parliamentary committees. The further education employers' group, the Association of Colleges, was invited to give evidence to the parliamentary advisory committee.

The committee, it seemed, booked a small room for acting AOC chief executive Sue Dutton and a couple of senior officers. Unfortunately the AOC had taken the invitation seriously and asked all 456 principals along - 150 came.

Not to seem ungracious, the PAC moved the shebang round the corner from the Palace of Westminster to Church House, commandeering the largest room available. Fine, unless you happen to be one of the 100 or more peers from the Lords who thought they had booked the room.


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