Diary

14th November 1997 at 00:00
There is coincidence, the collective unconscious, and just having your finger firmly on the national pulse. Oh, and there's having jolly good contacts.

One of these factors must surely lie behind the curious synchronicity and timing which has occasionally linked articles by journalist Melanie Phillips and former Conservative education minister George Walden (who astonished his own party by advocating the return of secondary modern schools for the party's 1992 manifesto. The reason? He was apparently worried about a potential shortage of supermarket checkout operators).

The first occasion on which this uncanny publishing phenomenon was noted was during one hectic week in April last year. The subject? The all-round wonderfulness of the Man Who Inspects Schools for the Queen.

At the time, those nasty, ungrateful dinosaurs (sorry, teachers - Carborundum has been poring over these cuttings too long) in the beastly National Union of Teachers had considered passing a motion calling for Mr Woodhead to be removed from his post.

Mr Walden took up his quill, and waxed eloquent about his hero. "The really strange thing about him is that he has worked in schools all his life and is an educationalist himself. The fact that someone can emerge from that with his head screwed squarely to his body and his mouth emitting words comprehensible to ordinary mortals is a cause for optimism in itself," he opined.

Compare and contrast with Ms Phillips' thesis the following Sunday, in which she employed an elaborate running metaphor of a nation sick because physicians are refusing to cure anybody when - hey presto - along comes Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Physic, who runs Ofdoc. "The person the physicians hated most of all was not the Prime Minister but the man he had appointed to monitor their performance . . . A former physician himself, he knew better than anyone what effect his former profession was having. Every few months, he would produce yet another report outlining his horror at the carnage he was discovering."

Mr Walden suggested an equestrian statue would be in order "with the resolute-eyed Mr Woodhead clutching a small child to his armoured bosom while trampling the forces of ignorance and obscurantism at his feet, the inscription proclaiming: 'To Sir Christopher Woodhead, recently sainted, from a grateful nation, whom he reminded how to read and to count.'" Ms Phillips had a more apocalyptic vision. "As I left London on my way to seek fresh adventures, I noticed what appeared to be a greyish cauliflower stuck on a pole outside the House of Commons. Inquiring of an excited bystander what this might be, I was chilled to the marrow by the reply. It was the chief inspector's head."

On that note, the strange forces which harnessed the powers of those two brains back in 1996 disappeared as mysteriously as they had arrived - until last month, which saw a resumption of this noted double act: Mr Walden in The Sunday Times and Ms Phillips in the New Statesman. The similarities were even more outstanding: both cast doubt on the capabilities of Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, praise his minister Steve Byers to the skies, and exhort the Prime Minister to get a grip on things.

Sources within the Department for Education and Employment appear to have suspicious minds, telling Carborundum they believed the articles were intended to "destabilise" the ministerial team.

Paranoia being a symptom of power, Carborundum did not pay too much heed to this idea save to idly ponder why, if this was true, anyone would want to create such intrigue. No doubt a conspiracy theorist could construct something around the then much-bruited Cabinet reshuffle and tensions over grant-maintained schools.

Which all leaves us looking with much fascination at last week's papers. On Monday that nice Mr Blair was filling several columns in the Guardian with his innocent thoughts on the future of local government and how the Government would take action if pupils' education was endangered.

Six days later, Ms Phillips' Observer column argued that local education authorities should be done away with altogether, concluding: "Behind the scenes, this agenda is beginning to have some resonance . . . The Prime Minister, elements in the Treasury and the Chief Inspector of Schools are seriously interested in the idea."

What can this all mean? Should we be taking this very seriously indeed? Insiders from the last administration cheerfully confirm enduring Treasury interest in the idea of axeing the local authorities on cash-saving grounds - apparently since Kenneth Clarke moved there from Education, where he was regarded as having a bee in his bonnet on the subject.

Mr Woodhead stirred his own hornets' nest by writing a pamphlet for right-wing think-tank queen Sheila Lawlor on the possibilities of schools buying in more for themselves but that was some time ago. Intrigued, Carborundum rang The Man Who Speaks For The Man Who Inspects Schools, etc. "Local authorities? I would say his position is agnostic on them," he muses. Watch this space.

Carborundum

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