A SPACECRAFT lands in your back garden. "Tell me honestly," your Martian visitor asks, pausing only to scratch the nose on the back of his cubic head with the biggest of his seven toes, as Martians do when inquisitive, "are human beings good or bad?"
"Well, er, it's a bit difficult," you stammer. "Some are good and some are bad, but it depends what you mean by 'good', and er..."
"Ah, you must a teacher, trying to see all points of view," the Martian replies benignly. "Martian teachers have the same problem when writing reports. But are your people good or bad?"
Judging the human race as a single entity is like the current debate about whether local education authorities are competent or incompetent. LEAs are the biggest mixed-ability group in British education. Some are excellent, some hopeless; most try to do a decent job in difficult circumstances.
In any case, the very term "local education authority" does not cover a single concept. There are democratically-elected politicians, professional officers, various units and departments, groups, and individuals - all of whom may differ considerably in quality and competence, even within the same LEA.
The Government is now advertising for a fire brigade of external consultants to rescue a failing LEA. It is hard to see what other options are available if the LEA has been given every chance to provide a service, but still failed. I would not, however, want a local authority handed over entirely to a profit-making company.
Some of the private companies' proposals for making profits, such as getting rid of teachers and using educational technology instead, defy belief. "Performance contracting", as it became known in the United States, when school districts paid private firms to teach reading, was a flop. Part privatisation might work, but where would the whole-hog version leave our democratic right to elect an idiot?
In council elections would voters in failed LEAs be voting for local politicians or private contractors? Harry Ramsbottom, elected but clueless? Or Fastbuck Plc, imposed but rich and successful? I am strongly tempted to reply to the Government advertisement to become a contractor. "We at Fastbuck Plc, with our Latin motto visas acceptamus (we take credit cards), can offer failing LEAs the services of the following dream team of problem-busters..."
Rambo: Is your education committee chairman a bit of a loony? Follows party line uncritically, or pursues daft political dogma? We have the solution: Rambo is your man. Brings pump-action rifle, no mess.
Mystic Meg: Difficulties with school admissions and parental choice? The National Lottery computer generates random digits and children are assigned to schools according to how many lucky numbers they get. Mystic Meg then peers into her crystal ball and says: "I see a long bus journey..."
Fireman Sam and Simon Spindoctor: Not getting your message across? Call in the senior partners at Macchiavelli and Goebbels PR Consultancy to douse the flames and turn all your burned custard into creme brulee.
Regina Pre-pre: LEA not very helpful before inspections? Regina Pre-pre, fully-qualified registered inspector (Dip. Insp., Hotel Eldorado, Clacton, 1994), will give schools a pre-pre-inspection. If the LEA does its own pre-inspection badly, all is not lost. By the time the real inspectors arrive the kids will know that lesson on volcanoes by heart.
Big Ron: Chief education officer not up to the job? Spends all day planning to buy a cabin cruiser called Lump Sum, or has died on the job and continues posthumously? Call Big Ron Atkinson, saviour of many a football club faced with relegation. Free champagne and cigars provided.
Tammy Tarantula: Callers unable to get past your switchboard? No problem. Our highly- trained multi-limbed arachnid can handle eight phones and swallows troublesome visitors whole.
Bertie Bollox: Problems with bureaucracy? Need an impressive development plan or mission statement? Bertie, until his retirement a full-time writer of national vocational qualification documents, will craft a plan so opaque no one will know what on earth it means.
No job will be too difficult for us at Fastbuck - if the price is right.
The Prince of Darkness, a collection of Ted Wragg's TES articles, is available from Trentham Books, Westview House, 734 London Road, Oakhill, Stoke on Trent, ST4 5NP, price pound;8.95.