Pity Chris Woodhead, the Man Who Inspects Schools For The Queen. There he is, holed up in his office drafting and redrafting his annual Chief Inspector's Report (due in a shock-horror headline near you sometime after Christmas) and desperately trying not to use or even think the O-word.

Even now, lexicographers with dirty minds are trying to work out just what that word could be, so Carborundum will swiftly put an end to all speculation. It is Oscar, a word officially banned for Government use by the Cabinet Office in the wake of threatened writs from across the Atlantic.

It seems that ministers and officials had been making rather too free with the noun to describe winners of the Government's Charter Mark wheeze. This has upset the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, which rather objected to the comparison of schools, doctors' surgeries and official bumph with Tom Hanks and other (real) Oscar winners, and complained bitterly of trade mark infringement.

A phalanx of American lawyers appeared at the Office of Public Service, which after a brief consultation with the Treasury Solicitor was advised that the Americans had a good case for action after the bandying-about of the phrase "Public Service Oscars". The Cabinet Office agreed never again to use any trade marks of the Academy to signify the status of any awards it gave.

The only trouble is that at the Office for Standards in Education, Oscar has become the easy verbal shorthand to describe one of the schools on the Chief Inspector's little list of the nation's best and most improved schools. Officials are therefore having to watch their tongues to prevent the O-noun popping out in public.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time that the Americans have taken exception to local appropriation of their bright ideas. Up and down the land, schools, pupils and parents are still referring to national curriculum tests as the eminently more zippy SATs (Standard Assessment Tasks in this country but Scholastic Aptitude Tests in the US). But the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has been forbidden to use the acronym, and only through dint of extreme grovelling got the trademarking body (a Princeton-based organisation) to overlook its past use of it. And now we've done it. Oops.

MUCH CONFUSION over events in the borough of Trafford, where Brian Rigby - Conservative spokesman for education on the local council - appears to be conducting a one-man campaign to encourage local schools to opt out.

Although his underlying motives appear entirely consistent, the rationale does not. Compare and contrast the following excerpts from missives penned by Councillor Rigby, the first on the subject of Sale Grammar School: "By becoming a grant-maintained school, if that is the wish of the parents, Sale Grammar School would retain its grammar school status and not go comprehensive under the Trafford Labour Group."

And the second to parents at Ashton on Mersey High School, where the energetic spokesman is chairman of governors: "Another major advantage grant-maintained status will offer is the opportunity for the school to adopt comprehensive status. It will remove that awful stigma of failure that so many of our children and parents feel under the present system of selection. It will remove the possibility, indeed probability, of any errors occurring in the 11-plus testing procedure and allow parents to plan the futures of their children without the intervention of the local education authority. This school has a superb academic record as a High School. Just think what it might be if we had a comprehensive intake."

Just think. And just think about this, too: if Sale Grammar parents did decide in their January ballot that GM status was for them, then one of the first governors will be a Dr Malcolm Clarke. He is a member of the Labour party and the Campaign for State Education, and may vote for GM status so that he can influence the school to stop being selective.

Confused? You will be.

CARBORUNDUM IS eagerly awaiting the arrival of a Christmas card from Dr John Patten MP, hellfire expert and late of this parish. The Patten family have evidently been busy in the time since John lost his day job as Secretary of State for Education: the card is one of those personalised jobs featuring a shot of the Patten mother and daughter with shining eyes, ladylike veils and another John.

The caption: "Mary-Clare and Louise after an audience with His Holiness The Pope at Christmas time, 1995."

NEW ALLEGATIONS of low standards in colleges of education have emerged from the files of evidence kept by the House of Commons Select Committee on education, which is investigating teacher training. MPs on the committee have already been told that many teacher trainees cannot add. Now, according to written evidence which the Select Committee has just published, they also cannot spell . . ."

Jolly topical excerpt from The TES, what? Except that it was actually published in 1970. And to add to the general feeling of plus ca change, guess who presented said evidence to the Select Committee? A mince pie to anyone who thought it might be Rhodes Boyson.

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