13th September 1996 at 01:00
As befits a future king, Prince Charles is keen to learn about the education bestowed upon his subjects by the state. First-hand experience is, alas, not to be on the agenda, with the prince himself an alumnus of the chilly Gordonstoun and his sons at Eton and Ludgrove Prep. And so other ways and means must be discovered.

It is with much joy, therefore, that Carborundum uncovers details of a previously little-known dinner party held at Highgrove, HRH's Gloucestershire residence, some two years ago.

Summoned to impart wisdom on the current state of British education were a dozen of the great and the good, including Peter Mortimore of the Institute of Education, Sir Tim Lankester, then permanent secretary at the Department for Education, Sir John Cassels of the National Commission on Education, a south London headteacher, Chris Woodhead (who might or might not then have been the Man Who Inspects Schools for Prince Charles's Mum) and one Melanie Phillips, Observer columnist.

A somewhat mixed bag, you might agree. And one which apparently made for a lively lunch. Ms Phillips, whose trenchant views on the current state of education are the subject of a lively new book, was seated on the prince's right, probably because our mole thinks she was the only woman present, a first, if you believe the tabloids.

Pre-dinner drinkies over, the guests were ushered into the dining-room to enjoy the first course and quiet conversation before work commenced.

The prince then introduced the subject of the day: what was happening in state education and wasn't literacy turning into a bit of a problem?

And then it was the turn of the guests to sing for their supper. "Melanie Phillips was quite voluble," recalls our mole. "We divided into two groups: those who thought education wasn't brilliant in this country but there was quite a lot going on, and the smaller party saying 'woe is me'. Melanie Phillips was definitely of the 'woe is me' group."

He continues: "I wouldn't say she managed to hog the conversation. Everyone knew where she stood already. Everyone else had a fair crack of the whip. She didn't harangue us for half an hour or anything like that."

And what of Chris Woodhead, as the Diary went to press the star turn of a debate to launch Ms Phillips's book? "It wasn't a Woodhead-Melanie love-in by any means, but he must have been in the party which was saying how worrying it all was."

Given the expert status of the others present, what, wonders Carborundum, was Ms Phillips doing there?

"I suppose she was the grit in the oyster," hazards our royal guest.So next time Prince Charles opines that British education really is appalling, you'll know exactlywho to blame.

* As if to prove that the Diary is By Royal Appointment this week, there is also the little tale which reaches us from Prince William school in Oundle, celebrating its 25th birthday.

Energetic head Chris Lowe had invited the current Duke of Gloucester to officiate at the celebrations. The school is named after the previous duke, elder brother of the incumbent, who died in a plane crash two months after opening it.

Anyway, Mr Lowe and the D of G were making their stately progress around the school last Friday and spent some time lurking at the back of a Year 10 drama group working on The Crucible.

On their departure, a hulking teenager enquired of the teacher: "Please Miss, which one was the duke?" Unsurprisingly, this innocent remark reverberated rapidly around the school and did no end to lift the tone of the celebrations, particularly since Mr L has been a staff member for the full 25 years.

Mr Lowe - whose apparent anonymity with his pupils might have something to do with the fact that as president of the European Secondary Heads Association, he has just made his 341st plane trip - is cheerfully telling the tale himself.

"One of the things that might have confused the kids is that the Lord Lieutenant was there that day as well, wearing a uniform with swords and God knows what and probably looked much more like a duke. The duke was wearing a pin-striped suit, and so was I. But I've told the teacher to send the kid to me so he can see what I look like."

* An exciting new conspiracy theory reaches us from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which has bagged a former chief designer from the Department for Education and Employment's architect's department to write for its mag. Nick Carter reckons that the exhortations of Chris Woodhead for more formal teaching methods, with rows of tables and chairs and kids all facing forward, has something to do with the desire to save money.

"Undoubtedly, it would allow the Government to dodge investing in primary school premises, for there would be no need for additional buildings, no need for modern furniture," he said. "How attractive to the Labour party, under immense pressure to increase education spending, to form the next government with a ready-made answer. And at a time of rising class sizes, it would also enable schools to pack in even more pupils."

* Staff at Derby Tertiary College came up with a bright idea to ease confusion for new students during enrolment week by investing in dozens of yellow plastic "footprints" to mark out routes to the course information service and so on. Useful, until the college inexplicably ran out of right feet. Rumours of freshers seen hopping bemusedly along corridors are, we suspect, just that.


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