13th March 1998 at 00:00
Forget the chestnut about infinite numbers of monkeys and typewriters. A more miraculous transformation has been effected in the bowels of the Department for Education and Employment - turning New Labour Speak into poetry via the pens of toiling civil servants.

Remember the competition set by the political advisers of Sanctuary Buildings? Contestants were presented with a list of 21 words and phrases overused by the new administration to be integrated into a short piece of fiction or non-fiction.

On offer were such gems as "on message, scoping, 360-degree feedback programme, cascade, badging of soft skills, robust, zero-tolerance, nugatory work, prudent, no fifth option and (gulp) exit strategies which explore horizontal as well as vertical progression routes".

Carborundum now presents selected highlights of two of the more literary efforts, and is pleased to report that the winners' soft skills have been badged with a bottle of something alcoholic.

Winston Smith sat in his office overlooking Millennium Abbey. Winston was head of Zero Tolerance Division and had been tasked with a cross-cutting remit to novate areas of educational practice that would no longer be tolerated. He was reading a draft paper on dress standards for teachers.

The Department was keen on mapping good practice in this area and was, in addition, suggesting zero-tolerance of tweed jackets, flowery dresses and the colour brown. Winston was a robust opponent of nugatory work and condensed his thoughts into a few words in the margins - "those awful Clarks' shoes that look like Cornish pasties" is an imprecise definition, he wrote.

Outside, he could hear the teachers' 360-degree feedback programme in progress. Un-reconstructed NUTNASUWT types were being denounced by parents and governors. "Benchmarks for the many and not the few!" they shouted.

One person had a deeper need to emote - "Death to incompetent trendy left-wing teachers!" Almost preternaturally on-message, mused Winston... He put down the phone, wrote "please cascade" on a minute from the Permanent Secretary and looked out of the window.

The teachers from the feedback programme were being marched over to Westminster School where they would receive private sector insights into teaching Latin.

Winston noticed with some pleasure that most, if not all, were wearing brown.

It took robust cross-cutting pliers to separate the last strand. Working iteratively up and down the wire in the margins of no-man's land as a cascade of shrapnel showed zero-tolerance of anything but prudent crawling, I thought back to Christmas in Blighty.

The mud made nugatory work of all the mapping. I'd been tasked with scoping escape routes for the last sappers captured in the crossfire. We had to find ways out - backwards or forwards, up or down (or exit strategies which explore horizontal as well as vertical progression routes, as the War Office manual now called them) - there was no fifth option.

This was real - no part of the new 360-degree feedback programme with badging of soft skills for the pampered sons of Victorian officers. They'd come out to Flanders more prepared to emote in verse than to lead. Some survived, on-message with a harsh reality. Too many fell. Gas, lead, dysentery or madness.

The squeaky-clean Diana Warwick, leader of the nation's universities, is the latest contender to run the Association of Colleges. Principals think Ms Warwick, a member of the Nolan (now O'Neill) Committee on Standards in Public Life is the ideal candidate to liberate them from their sleazy reputation.

She is well-known as a consensus-builder and, they believe, could unite the warring factions in a way an internal appointment could not.

Her experience as a general secretary of the Association of University Teachers will be priceless given endless battles being fought with the college lecturers' union.

But, most important, she is credited at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals with turning a gentleman's club into an influential opinion-former. Some principals would like to lessen the influence of a few old. . . um, gentlemen in the AOC.

A fascinating new phrase surfaced last week during the Debate of the Millennium between The Man Who Inspects Schools For The Queen (Chris Woodhead) and Mr Local Authority (Tim Brighouse): the "uncritical lover". Suffice it to say this has something to do with raising standards and is probably A Bad Thing. Mr Brighouse, however, managed to bring the house down by explaining "I have never come across one of those." Laughing the loudest, in the front row, was Mrs Brighouse. Everybody say Aaah. Or ugh.


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