28th March 1997 at 00:00
With all election candidates yet to declare themselves, the polling race on the Isle of Wight is looking increasingly interesting.

Regular readers may recall that Andrew Turner, former Oxford councillor and supremo of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation, has finally got his wish to be selected for a Conservative seat. His fiancee Carole, whom he plans to wed on the island, according to his press release, is confident of victory. Sadly, Carborundum is not.

First, there are the Liberal Democrats. Not only is their stronghold in that part of the world, but their candidate came just 1,827 votes behind the current Conservative incumbent five years ago.

And then there is the Referendum party (don't laugh). With a majority that small, the last thing Mr Turner needs is Eurosceptic Tories voting for a referendum. Particularly on this maverick island, which recently came out strongly in favour of a vote on whether it should go it alone.

Referendum candidate Tim Bristow is confident about his own chances: "Sir James Goldsmith recently said we have the most supporters of any constituency in the country on the Isle of Wight. There are 1,400, and that's increasing by 150 a week.

"It helps that we've got 130 helpers and we'll have leafleted every house by Friday."

Attracting rather less notice than the Parliamentary committee on sleazy MPs were the recent deliberations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee over the initiative to raise school standards. One of the questions bugging the honourable members was precisely how the schools were chosen, amid persistent rumours that a desire to balance numbers of Protestant and Catholic schools and board districts influenced matters as much as poor exam results and deprivation indicators such as free school meals.

Problematically, you see, the most deprived schools tend to be in Catholic areas and whereas some controlled (Protestant) schools with 30-odd per cent of pupils on free dinners have been chosen, maintained (Catholic) counterparts with 60 and even 90 per cent of children with such entitlements have not.

In fact, the report on the matter specifically mentions such suspicions and does little to dispel them. What has received rather less public notice, however, was the evidence given by Tom Shaw, the Northern Ireland equivalent of The Man Who Inspects Schools for the Queen. Called before the committee almost a year ago, he confidently asserted that secondary schools were chosen for the initiative on three criteria: the proportion of children entitled to free school meals, GCSE performance and attendance rates. "So they are very hard, clear criteria," said Mr Shaw.

Our Man in Northern Ireland, who also gave evidence, was not as sure as Shaw, diffidently informing the MPs that all previous statements by the Department, including one by the Minister Michael Ancram, had said schools were selected on exam performance alone.

A month later, it emerges, Mr Shaw was back before the honourable members in apologetic mood. "If I might be permitted to clarify something which was not correct in earlier evidence," he proffered, "the actual choice of secondary school was only made on the indicator related to performance in public examinations."

If the chief inspector does not know the criteria for the scheme, then who does?

Thoughtfully, the Government has set up a hotline for frantic parents who (a) don't have nursery vouchers yet or (b) haven't a clue what to do with them. Why, then, does it seem designed to baffle and frustrate those who are already baffled and frustrated?

On first calling, all we got was a robotic voice asking parents to press 1 and "providers" (nice bit of baffling jargon there) to press 2. In the spirit of adventure, Carborundum tried both, with an identical result: three more multiple choices, and an information pack. A week later, it had still not arrived.

So Carborundum rang the Department for Education and Employment and pointed out that this was not much use to a frantic, voucher-less parent. Try again next week, we were told. So we did. This time the robotic civil servant told us there were operators - but they were busy. It added: "If you are a parent, say yes. If you are a provider, stay silent." We said yes, so it kindly offered to send us yet another information pack. Alternatively, we could phone back, or call another number on which we were promised real human beings.

So we did. And it's been suspended for the duration of the election campaign. Life, it seems, is too short to claim nursery vouchers.

A pair of entertaining e-mails doing the rounds at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority have mysteriously found their way to Carborundum. The first, from one Mary Dyet, says: "I have received a fax from 'Medutt Ltd' in Moscow who are requesting an 'exchange of schoolboys' for 'studing'. Should I contact Esther Rantzen?" Minutes later, she answered her own question thus: "It's OK. I've sent it to Ofstud."

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