Avoid diversions on necessary journeys

20th June 1997 at 01:00
It was one of those disasters which, if it hadn't actually occurred, you would not have believed possible. I was still in my first term as a teacher in Watford, a time when I never went out on a weekday evening because it was all I could do to prepare my lessons and get my marking done for the next day. And if I did go out, I certainly didn't drink. How could you face 3C at 9am with even a hint of a hangover?

Then one day an old friend who I hadn't seen for ages rang up and said he was in London. How about an evening out? I hesitated. I had a pile of essays about Henry VII to mark but, on the other hand, if I didn't go I wouldn't see my friend for months, maybe years.

I left my bike at Watford Junction and had a marvellous evening out in the West End. Despite the alcohol, I was just in time to catch the midnight train out of Euston, which was due at Watford at 18 minutes past midnight.

I have no idea whether it reached Watford on time because when I woke up the train was just pulling in to Coventry. Ever since then, I shudder when I pass through the concrete monstrosity which is Coventry station. I spent two mind-numbing hours there while I worked out what to do. One option was to wait until six and get the train back to Euston. The other was to get a night train to Gatwick Airport. I could change there and get to central London and - if it all worked out - be back in Watford by 6.30am.

It didn't work out. The train was delayed. I ended up travelling into central London on the Gatwick Express with a crowd of people who had flown in that morning from North America, Africa and the Far East. I was terrified that one of these excited travellers would ask me which exotic place of origin I had come from that night. I couldn't decide which would be the more romantic answer, "Coventry", "Watford" or "round the world".

I finally got back to Euston at 7.55am in time for the 8.01. I showed my return ticket to Watford which - though now battered - had faithfully covered my entire journey thus far. The ticket collector said: "This ticket is dated yesterday."

"I know," I said. "I started my journey yesterday." And I proceeded to tell him in graphic detail the story of my night out, not forgetting the complete absence of even lukewarm coffee at Coventry station. He listened patiently and, without an inkling of sympathy, sent me to get another ticket valid for the new dawn.

I duly arrived in Watford at 8.30, cycled madly to the school where I worked, scrunched my hair, pulled up my tie, washed my face and found myself in front of 3C desperately trying to look in control. Don't let anyone tell you that it's better to travel than to arrive. In this case neither was much fun.

I have no idea whether the lesson I delivered was a minor classic or not. I rather think it wasn't. What I do remember is that at the back of the classroom was one of those World War II public relations posters with the famous slogan "Is Your Journey Really Necessary?".

It's a good question and, because of my involuntary visit to Coventry, it is deeply embedded in my mind. Every now and then something prompts it to return to my consciousness.

This happened often during the implementation of the national curriculum between 1988 and 1993. I remember the 17 attainment targets in science. I remember the comings and goings over technology. I remember that GCSE gradings, which had only just been introduced, were originally to be replaced by national curriculum levels. I remember the original key stage 1 national tests which took over primary schools for more than a month. I remember - does anyone else? - the annual curriculum return. This was about as useful as my British Rail day return. I remember all these weird and wonderful moments and think "Is Your Journey Really Necessary?" One might wonder why anyone would have even considered travelling on the wartime trains. Journeys then weren't much fun, after all. This is how Ronald Gould, the magisterial general secretary of the National Union of Teachers in the post-war era remembers wartime travel: "Train journeys were often interrupted, there were no dining cars and trains were sometimes unheated . . . Bombing, too, interrupted schedules and on many nights prevented sleep."

But even given the privations of wartime, people wanted to travel because - if Angus Calder, social historian of wartime, is to be believed - a lot of the time war was boring. The government, by contrast, did not want people to travel for fun. It needed the trains to transport troops and food, the essentials of the era. Hence the famous poster.

What its question demands above all is prioritisation. It came to mind again this week because prioritisation is the central challenge for any new government. With such high and varied expectations, there is a risk that a government will take on so many challenges that it is unable to succeed with any of them.

The new Labour Government's education policy is designed to avoid this fate. There is a firm and clear policy that literacy, numeracy and raising standards matter most. Teachers and schools will, I believe, benefit from the Government's clear sense of priorities. The journey really is necessary. And they will certainly welcome recognition that the best way to get to Watford from Euston is not via Coventry and Gatwick Airport.

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