7th February 1997 at 00:00
Can the superficially emollient tone of the annual report of the Man who Inspects Schools for the Queen - every paragraph seemingly starting with a positive thought before getting poleaxed with a vicious "But . . ." - have something to do with the general election?

Credence is given to this theory by the mention given to the nearness of the poll in Mr Woodhead's opening sentences. But, we hear you say, isn't his job safe whichever party wins the election? Didn't Labour leader Tony Blair assure David Frost of that during an astonishing New Year interview?

Well, yes. Or, rather, when asked the question Mr Blair replied "Absolutely" before tearing off into a rambling dissertation about Labour and standards which - read in cold print - could fairly be described as flannel.

This makes all the more plausible stories suggesting that Bambi's public tearing-up of Chris Woodhead's P45 was done off the cuff, rather than as a statement of established policy.

Why otherwise would he have subsequently apologised - as excellent sources suggest - to his education spokesman David Blunkett for his televised remarks? Said apology was, apparently, on the grounds that Mr Blunkett and his team had not been forewarned of the Woodhead Pledge.

The stoic Mr Blunkett has coped masterfully with frontbenchers' exercising of parental choice to pick grant-maintained schools for their offspring and not being informed about reversals of Labour policy on private school fees, but he must have been miffed about the Woodhead affair, although he has always gone out of his way to be even-handed about the controversial chief inspector. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this week, his praise was notably reserved for the inspectorate rather than its figurehead.

Charm offensive notwithstanding - Mr Woodhead has recently taken to wining and dining Labour notables in style - it is beginning to look as though he is repositioning himself to be acceptable to a new Government.

And that repositioning seems to include body language. Students of bizarre phenomena should check out his photograph at the start of his annual report in which Mr Woodhead - a strapping six-footer - appears to be drawing in his arms, head and shoulders a la Princess Di to cram himself into the small space left for the portrait. Most odd.

Another fascinating OFSTED tale reaches us from deepest Doncaster, where the natives are mystified by news that the inspectors will shortly descend on three local middle schools.

As one irate taxpayer noted, said schools are to close this year under reorganisation and the money might be better deployed elsewhere. "I am incensed that so much money is being spent on inspections which are a complete waste, " she fumed in a letter to Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.

Carborundum, smelling a rat, rang OFSTED to enquire. Surely some missing factor would explain this seemingly pointless inspection? And so our initial contact agreed.

The following day came the official explanation: "We have no choice but to inspect these schools. It's in the legislation, but I understand it is not going to be a full inspection."

So, er, exactly who or what decrees that these schools have to be inspected now? "They're on the list."

And who makes the list? "We do."

Perhaps it's something in the water in deepest Northamptonshire, but pupils there seem disturbingly keen on the idea of spending their spare time marching around in big boots and scratchy khaki. And that's just the girls.

Twenty years ago, Chris Lowe - the current head of Prince William School in Oundle - decided it would be a jolly wheeze to set up an army cadet force for pupils.

The first Friday night saw a gratifyingly large turnout. Including three girls, who were less than impressed to be told that being as the cadets were an adjunct to the Army, it was boys-only. "But this is a comprehensive school, " they pointed out.

Mr Lowe continues: "The next Friday, they turned up in khaki uniforms they had made themselves. I wrote to the Army and asked what I should do about it.

"A well-meaning brigadier decided that as an experiment, we could have girls in the cadet force. That was 20 years ago, and as far as I know, we are still an experiment."

Storming the bastions was only the start of the story for the intrepid three. "At one point there were 12 girls and 70 boys, and one of these girls was the sergeant-major. The sight of her marching those boys around was absolutely wonderful . . . used to mystify foreigners, though.

"She was our first scholar at Oxford. She was a real little martinet," mused Mr Lowe, adding reflectively: "She's in a nunnery now."

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