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Good for mischievous razzle-dazzle

FROM time to time, I find myself in some boardroom, sitting in a row of establishment figures, solemnly judging presentations by schools. Last week I was doing Barclays New Futures, which is always good fun because of the wildly diverse wheezes and projects that the schools throw up: playground nature reserves, peer-mentoring, sign language, social work - anything which gees up the school and feeds outward into the community.

Corporate pens in our hands, we scribble on judging-sheets and furrow our brows in an effort to resist the overwhelming temptation to say "Oh, go on, you're a big bank, give them all some moneyI" The winners have been covered elsewhere in The TES by now, so never mind the detail. What struck me then - and has struck me many times - is how much you can tell about a school by the way it approaches a formal, unnerving "presentation" and how the inmates cope when it starts to go wrong on the day. In a short-contract society, where every passing year makes it more important to be able to get on your hind legs and sell your pitch to a row of suits, the skill the kids are getting is almost as valuable as all the solid experience of the actual projects.

Pauline, for instance, from Scotland and with a cocky St Trinian's air to her, was so brilliant that I was amazed the bank did not draw her aside before the judging and offer her a department to run. Her job was to explain about a sign-language project, aloud, while signing at high speed; then translate for other speakers, and perform a "voiceover" while a classmate without speech did her bit. She was immaculate.

Better than that, she grinned at us before she left with an edgy, mischievous, conspiratorial grin which any political spin-doctor would give anything to copyright for his election candidate.

Or there was the very small boy who fronted a piece of spirited role-playing theatre by a school in Devon; or the teenage lad from another school, who had to cope when the laptop PowerPoint device went down. Personally, I am not that fond of PowerPoint anyway, especially when it is used to flash up lists of bullet points which the speaker then reads out in a plonking tone of voice; but it was coolly impressive how the boy, barely glancing back a the sad blank screen, just took over and told it like it was.

And in a different way, some special needs children from Maesgwyn were superstars, breezily confident and perfectly prepared to break out into a live finale song. Which, in those sombre Lombard Street surroundings, is something which even the most seasoned advertising creative would be hard pressed to do without a gutful of vodkatinis and a very large bet to win. In short, they were great. And the measure of the school is how happy the teachers are to take a back seat and let them get on with it.

You can feel the tension when they do, but it is a heroic act. Children are never entirely reliable (any more than advertising creatives) and the temptation must be to put at least one staff member upfront as anchorman.

But very few do. And when it comes to the questions from the panel, most of the teachers try their very best not to be too leaderish, but to wait with bated breath for whatever weird and possibly damning reply their charges are going to make. It is all very impressive and comforting to behold. Because there isn't any option, these days.

Backroom efficiency and reliability, expertise and care remain virtues; but the modern world is driven by pitching and hustling and presenting with flair, by getting noticed at the interview and carrying conviction at the flip-chart.

Or, indeed, about having enough conviction to dispense with the boring flip-chart altogether, and just get up there and tell it. But to do that, you have to pare down your message, support it with snappy soundbites, stay honest enough to believe in every one of them and field a tricky question with a reasonable answer or an honest "don't know yet", and a debonair grin.

I am not suggesting for a moment that we judges were swayed by mere slickness - we had large documents and budget plans to work on first. But it was still comforting, in the broadest educational sense, to see in all six finalists a bit of polish, and persuasiveness, and familiarity with presentation techniques as well as with the projects themselves.

Nothing wrong with a bit of razzle-dazzle. And it would appear that these days, Mr Chips is getting astonishingly good at teaching it.

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