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Make mine a double espresso;Opinion

"WAKE UP and smell the coffee" thundered the latest editorial at recalcitrant teachers, demanding flexibility of working conditions. I thought back to August where the holiday's last week was spent in school, with other volunteer guidance staff, helping interview most of the 250 returning seniors - not because the headteacher ordered it, but because it allowed a prompt start to the pupils' education.

It's interesting that international comparisons of pupil performance, with the French or the Irish, for example, stop short of comparing holidays. How do French pupils survive 17 weeks' holiday, how do the Irish boast the best educated young people in Europe yet also have the longest school holidays?

Another less welcome contrast between the two systems was revealed when a teacher friend and I compared recent inspections. The French inspectors' visit to the English department was announced three weeks in advance. There was no choice of class - it was just your misfortune to have the class of 19-year olds studying technical English for the concrete industry.

The French paperwork was minimal. There were no policy statements on the more able, the less able, the more or less able. No department handbooks, records of work doctored in three colours of ink to improve verisimilitude. Only a marks book and an assessment of your teaching - the relationship with the class, the command of English, the ability to control the group.

Each teacher inspected was marked out of 40, on which depended promotion, and any subsequent salary increase. If you were unhappy with the allocated mark, a second assessment was permitted - with the same inspector, who would obviously be less than pleased that his original judgment was being challenged.

The lowest marks in the department were given to the teacher who was an English native speaker, and to the most experienced teacher. The latter judgment was thought likely by her colleagues to result from her challenge to the inspector at a teachers' conference some months before.

No inspectors were around during one of my endless interviews with the returning seniors. We ask the pupils for their name, followed by their choice of subject columns. Wearily, I heard the first word: "English."

"No," I said testily, "you don't pick your subjects yet. Name, please."

"English," he repeated. Just as I raised a quizzical eyebrow he added:

"English. James English."

Perhaps I need to smell that coffee after all.

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