1st August 1997 at 01:00
There must be degrees aplenty among the Men in Grey Suits who run the Department for Education and Employment, but they have obviously taken their own Lifelong Learning mantra to heart.

High achievers they may well be, but every senior mandarin is on a personal mission to acquire one of those national vocational qualifications they are busy urging on everyone else.

Learning to word-process a memo - sorry, information technology - quickly emerged as the most popular area for this game of test the competence . . . but progress in Sanctuary Buildings has been slow. Just one mandarin is going flat out for the coveted A-level standard of the NVQ level 3.

Most are thinking that little bit smaller, playing safe, and sticking to a level 1. To prospective employers, that's the equivalent of four bog-standard GCSEs at a miserable grade D, E, F or G.

So top marks, then, to the industrious Dr Nick Tate, supremo of the Government's curriculum quangos existing and forthcoming. He, bless his heart, is striving earnestly for an NVQ level 4 (equivalent to a Higher National Diploma) in management. What an excellent example to set.

Still, if information technology is as weird as a sample A-level paper which has fallen into Carborundum's hands would suggest, it's no surprise that baffled mandarins are sticking to the basics.

The paper, from the Oxford and Cambridge Board, appears to have been composed by someone who at the very least is living in a parallel universe. Take question five, which involves well over an A4-sized page of bizarre prelude followed by three short questions.

The question is set, it seems, in the town of Quacas in the Neukommen mountains, a settlement famed for the formal feasts laid on for visitors. Said menus are approved by a local brigand, Scarface, but must follow no fewer than 12 rules, including: long menus are divided into two halves. The first half must be acceptable as a short menu then, following a ritual break during which short-menu visitors will depart, the second half must contain precisely the same number of courses as the first half; all courses must contain the flavourless products Spag and Cawsquill.

There is a further complication. "Most courses should be in the local style but one is allowed to put into the menu Wok-courses from the neighbouring county. Wok-courses do not have specified time limits as their preparation is uncertain." Moreover, these cannot take up more than one-fifth of the calories of the whole menu, cannot form the last course of a menu, or. . . That's enough rules. Carborundum is losing the will to live.

An acceptable menu is then given, including such culinary highlights as Cultured Hassocks with Spag and Cawsquill, Baker's choice with local ore, Spag and Cawsquill, Shephard's Wok Bolney with Spag and Cawsquill, Thatch Moon-Wokked with Spag and Cawsquill, and a carefully arranged pattern of all previous prepared dishes prepared in termite ale with added sin hops.

Students who have not been dragged off screaming and kicking to the nearest asylum are then asked to write a program checking that menus do not break the rules.

Carborundum - bewitched, bothered, and bewildered - asked a computer whizz just what he thought of this question. After due consideration came the reply: "They obviously think that anyone taking this A-level has got to be the sort of anorak who reads fantasy novels." Perhaps an NVQ in the subject would have the virtue of being a bit more straightforward.

Much muttering at the National Youth Agency that the Government has already scuppered its ideas for a curriculum for disaffected teens on yoof service schemes such as community radio.

The NYA wanted to call the curriculum (teaching basic skills to kids who wouldn't touch a college with a bargepole) a "gateway" programme - as in gateway to further education. But education officials have just nabbed that for something else.

"Access" and "Foundation" courses have long been taken. Even the word "Foyer" is now being used - all of which has left Tom Wylie and his gang scratching their heads for a suitable title to capture the public interest and the imagination of sceptical yoof. Carborundum suggests the "funnel course". Or the "approach corridor" course. Or how about the "You won't catch me near a bloody college" course...?

And finally, a paragraph from the editor's introduction to the September issue of the Journal of Moral Education. No further comment is, we feel, necessary. "In 1996 a 26-year-old man in Florida was arrested in flagrante delicto with a plastic female porpoise in a sex shop into which he had broken. He had intended simply to rob the till but told the police that once in the shop he had become mesmerised by the various sexual appliances. 'I'm not a pervert,' he said 'but I wanted to see what it felt like to be one.' He is now in prison . . . and studying for a degree in marine conservation."

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