Santa Claus awoke sharply from his reverie at the sound of Mrs Claus's cheery voice. Why, he mused, had he ever agreed to be chairman of governors at Snowland junior school?
"I suppose so," he sighed wearily, at the thought of yet another day spent on paper pushing, so close to Christmas Eve.
"I don't know why you've taken it on," Mrs Claus observed. "It's such a lot of work, and at the busiest time of the year."
"I want to help the school management," Santa replied. In practice his target was the oily head, known for so long as Uriah, that no one could remember his real name.
The conference venue was the Snowland LEA centre for quality and really fantastic excellence, a somewhat seedy converted bingo hall. Its name was meant to show the Government that the local authority was on message. Santa glanced around at the assembling collection of governors and heads. Both groups looked harassed, but you could easily recognise the heads. They were the ones picking up litter.
"May we start, please?" Chief Inspector Wally Plonker stood up and tried unsuccessfully to gain everyone's attention. Santa thought to himself that Wally was the classic negative personality - when he entered the room you felt someone had just left.
"Good morning, everybody," he eventually began. "I'm Wally Plonker, Chief Inspector for quality and really fantastic excellence in Snowland. Before we start, may I point out that my title has been changed in the light of the Government's latest policy paper? Please note that I am now to be called Chief Inspector for quality, really fantastic excellence and total and undiluted enjoyment."
"That's not the only thing you'll be called," Santa observed under his breath, immediately chiding himself for feeling resentment at the whole day swallowed by this governor training caper, just before he was due to tour the world distributing billions of presents.
"I'll start with Mr Twigg's letter to you last January, asking you to ensure your school met its targets," Wally Plonker began. Faces grew glummer. Governors who had signed up to be Florence Nightingale realised they were instead being cast as Vlad the Impaler.
Santa felt a sudden surge of panic. What letter? He had junked so many official missives, his shredder had melted under the strain. Which wretched piece of officialese was this one? He scoured the far-flung zones of his memory, where things he wanted to forget, as chairman of governors, were lodged in profusion.
"As you will no doubt recall," Plonker droned on, ever the optimist, "the Government is very keen to meet its national targets. What we in Snowland local education authority want you to do, is go back to your schools and make sure, by any means possible, that the teachers do actually achieve the targets they have been set."
He then trolled through the very latest targets, all contained in government circular 99903, or some such. Santa's mental faculties began to protest, as the torrent of official aspirations belched forth. Fantasy and reality fused, until he could no longer distinguish fact from daydream.
Every child had to get a grade A in every exam, it seemed.
Ofsted to apply thumbscrews and racks to those teachers who missed their targets. Headteachers of failing schools would be put in the stocks for the peasantry to throw rotten vegetables at them, this to be called "community education".
Santa's neighbour leaned over to him. "Can I have a word with you after the meeting, Claus, only I've set up my own inspection company, Screwthebuggers, and I'll be looking for lay inspectors. Thought you might be interested in training to be one, only takes half an hour."
Santa smiled wanly. "I've got a lot on."
"Maybe later then," the neighbour rejoined, "but if you want to come along next Wednesday and throw rotten tomatoes at your headteacher, Uriah, you're welcome."
"Next Wednesday's a bad day, I'm travelling," Santa replied.
In his mind he riffled through his massive present list. Fifty sticks and no carrots for education ministers. A calculator for every university applicant, to work out their future debt. A bag of horse manure for the Number 10 policy unit. And something he knew would make the head of Snowland juniors deliriously happy. A cabin cruiser called Lump Sum.
He looked out of the window. Snow was falling steadily.
Santa made a note of gifts he must send to Wally and any of his bureaucracy-crazed ilk. A massive shredder. A 500 megabyte state-of-the-art crap detector. A bilingual EnglishTwaddle dictionary. And Richard Branson's hot air balloon, so they could talk directly into it.