Conference call from the cowshed

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Before you lock up the shop and head off for Benidorm or Bridlington, depending on where you are on the salary scale (Benidorm if you are at the bottom, Bridlington if you are at the top), do bear in mind that the September conference season is only a gnat's whisker away.

Conferences bring out hidden truths in the teaching profession. If you took a video camera and filmed the participants, you could make a fortune in blackmail by threatening to show the secret life of the conference delegate. Sober-suited Mr Grimsdyke becomes Hawaiian-shirted Dave the Rave at the disco. Offer the normally discreet and tactful deputy head Mavis Scattergood a second glass of red wine during dinner, and she will bring out her stage whisper to tell you and the rest of the diners, and indeed anyone passing within half a mile of the conference venue, all the scandals that have befallen Swinesville School during the past 30 years.

Nowadays there is great business to be made out of conferences. Many hotels have been specially kitted out to cater for teachers' conferences - cheap food, video projectors that don't work, rooms that get too hot or cold, plus other features for those missing their school.

There is often great fun to be had when several conferences take place at the same venue. I once arrived at a large hotel to find a business-like lady rushing towards my car. "Thank goodness you've come," she gasped. "They're all waiting." When I entered the room it was full of middle-aged businessmen surrounded by manufacturing company logos. I had to explain gently that I was not the person they were expecting to talk about the aerodynamics of the ball bearing.

A few weeks ago I was lecturing to an audience of headteachers. In the room next door was another conference of people who sell anti-depressant drugs. The possibilities were endless. Couldn't the two get together and gratify each other? The heads could make bulk purchases of happy pills, while the tablet-sellers could sit in on education sessions to discover why their business was doing so well.

Whenever a conference gets boring, one way of pepping it up is to play the game "Who does what?" This is especially good fun when there are heads, teachers, education officials, governors, parents and politicians present. You try to guess which delegate is in which category. Then you check their badges to see if you were right.

There are certain guidelines here. The delegates picking up litter and chuntering are headteachers, that much is easy. The harassed-looking members could be almost anybody. The parents are the people who appear even more relieved to be away from children than the teachers do. Office for Standards in Education inspectors are the ones who go around looking hunted and furtive, pretending to be the window cleaner. Her Majesty's inspectors are cheerful and laughing, telling everyone they are HMI, not OFSTED.

It is very easy to make monumental blunders on these occasions. A colleague and I once entered a room full of people in the university where I work. We had been told there were many foreign dignitaries present, ambassadors even. Most spoke excellent English but some were more hesitant, so we were to speak slowly and distinctly. My colleague rushed over solicitously to a lady in a smart black dress standing on her own by the door. "Good evening," he beamed, enunciating his words clearly. "I'm Professor Scroggins and I work here at the university." "Nice to meet you," she replied. "I'm the waitress. Do you want white wine or red?" The are numerous hazards if you are invited to lecture at a conference. Should yours be last in the programme, everyone will have covered the ground three times already. If you lecture first, the other speakers will complain you have drained their own topic dry. When I am on last I always check with the organiser to see what other people have said. "Can't remember a thing," is the most common reply.

Another pitfall is the introduction. Most chairmen are well briefed, but some get it wrong. "Our speaker today was born in Leeds," one began. ("Sheffield, " I hissed, remembering that my father-in-law always claimed that people in Leeds never washed.) "He teaches at Essex University." ("Exeter," I muttered). "And he is a well-known progressive." ("Arch traditionalist, for goodness' sake. Do you want me to lose my job?").

One of my favourite introductions occurred when I went to Norway. "We are delighted Professor Wragg is able to open our conference," the chairman began, "because Professor Hirst couldn't come and neither could Professor Peters. " Another chairman told the audience he was relieved I had agreed to lecture because most people were busy at that time of the year.

Then there is the problem of the venue. I have lectured in some toilets in my time, but the other week I had to address 200 teachers in what used to be a cattle shed, an irony that did not escape the audience.

Next door to the screened-off area was an exhibition and also two other "lecture rooms", a loose term meaning "an area of shed surrounded by a few low-rise screens". The sound echoed round and round, bouncing up and down off the tin roof, fusing with the neighbouring distractions. It all sounded like a badly mixed, 1960s rock album.

So as the last register calls of July are logged in, as the school doors are locked for August, as the head picks up the last stray sweet-wrapper in the playground, the consolation is that only six weeks from now September will be here. Then it will all start up again with a jolly good conference in the cowshed. Have a good summer.

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