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Diary - Ain't it a kick in the head?

Fame at last. The Education Secretary asked that I be invited to join an "elite group" from Scottish education to visit Malawi to evaluate their education systems and see what we as a country can do to help them develop.

I sensed the imminent arrival of a few new outfits, a possible career opportunity and a sun-tan, not to mention an escape from the drudgery of cuts, savings, redundancies and Himself.

After several briefings, innoculations and lectures, we set off. I had taken the maximum baggage allowance and had gathered up a sample of obsolete textbooks, outdated equipment and a set of old football strips I had been given by the local football club. That should do.

As we touched down in Lilongwe, and after the usual customs checks, we were met by our hosts. For some unknown reason, I was treated like a film star, much to the annoyance of the minister's entourage. My passport was shown to all the officials and diplomats. I later discovered the reason for my fame was that I was born on July 6, 1964 - the day Malawi became independent from Britain. And my maiden name was Hastings (the first name of its first president). Madonna eat your heart out! Applause broke out and I was given preferential treatment throughout the visit. My fame spread.

I had the best 10 days ever and I was asked to tell the Malawi teachers, lecturers and education officers all about Scotland and our education system. Their command of English far exceeded that of many of our councillors - not too difficult - and their perception was incisive.

I was asked to tell it as it was - or as one learned professor said so eloquently, "with veruccaes and all". So I told them about our budget cuts, our drugs initiatives, our attendance drives, our attempts to close the gender gap in achievement, our curriculum plans and our inspection and assessment framework.

They were stunned into silence. Had I over-impressed them? As I left at the end of my sessions in Blantyre, I was touched when I was presented with a special carved warrior figure by a senior diplomat. I was told that a special gift was inside the head of the warrior and that I should open it when I got back to Scotland.

Days later, as I unpacked, I found the figure. Inside was a note. "Dear Mrs McElroy. We were shocked at the description of the many problems you have in your country compared to ours. Please accept this international money order to help your council get back on its feet again. Please do not be offended, but we burned the things you brought for us. They were so yesterday. Best wishes."

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