Across the threshold lies lunacy

31st March 2000 at 01:00
MOST WEEKS now, I spend a couple of minutes standing by a wall in my office and banging my head on it. This assures me that I am not dreaming or wandering around an educational crazy land like a deranged Alice.

Take a recent Friday afternoon telephone call. The voice at the other end informed me that I was being called by the "Threshold Hotline".

Glancing at my wall diary to check that it wasn't April 1, I smiled wearily. "The Threshold for what?" I asked. "Sanity?"

The lady at the other end of the phone didn't laugh. "The Pay Performance Threshold," she said. "And you haven't returned your form."

I asked which form she meant, explaining that I get lots and lots of forms, booklets, and pamphlets from the Department for Education and Employment - and then an envelope every month containing copies of the forms, booklets and pamphlets - just in case I hadn't received them in the first place.

I explained that this was Mr Blunkett's way of cutting down on unnecessary bureaucracy. "Ah, but this is a very important form," she said. "We need to know which day you're coming to the Threshold Assessment Training Conference."

It all suddenly clicked into place. I explained that I had returned the form and that I wouldn't be attending due to an irritation called an Office for Standards in Education inspection that week. "Anyway, the DFEE is bound to send me a huge, glossy, informative package - they always do," I said.

The lady explained that there was indeed a package, but it could only be handed to me. I could come any day of the week, although I might be too late for a place at the London venue. "There's one in Birmingham, though," she added.

I explained that OFSTED inspections tended to make head feel that their rightful place was in school, helping teachers through Valium-supported lessons.

"Then I'm afraid you won't be deemed qualified to assess your staff," my hotline helper said. "Which means they won't be able to apply for the threshold."

Becoming just a trifle irritated, I asked to speak with the idiot who had made up these rules.

"Oh, it's nothing to do with us," she added hastily. "We're just one of the hotline agencies appointed to chase up the heads who haven't responded. You'll need to ring the department."

Putting aside the temptation to go and read a story to the nursery class instead, I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and tracked down a suit at the department who seemed to know something about it.

"Can it really be true," I asked, "that after 19 years with an exceptionally stable school I'm considered unable to assess my staff without going on a one-day training course at a conference stadium?"

"Of course it isn't," he said. "I don't know who told you that, but you should ring them back and put them right straight away."

Incredulous, I said that I certainly would and suggested it might be advis able for him to do so as well, since it was his department that was responsible for this mess.

Later that afternoon, I managed to get back to my helpful hotline lady and explained that not only was most of the information she had given me wrong, but I could now be sent a pack without having to rush off to Birmingham.

She sounded pleased. "That's jolly good then," she said enthusiastically. "I'll send you a pack on Monday."

A month has passed. And I still haven't got one.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, south London

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