10th May 1996 at 01:00
The Great and the Good who lie awake at night worrying about whether or not the nation can meet its training targets can at least nibble on one crumb of comfort: Northern Ireland's education system should now be the envy of the world.

Many years and millions of pounds have been spent trying to raise standards in the province, but now the Industrial Development Board appears to have done the trick overnight.

Foreign customers receiving its literature designed to attract inward investment have been both impressed and astonished to discover that a remarkable 99 per cent of 16-year-olds in 1993-94 entered higher education.

Then incredulity took over. Wasn't it customary for would-be university students to take A-levels or such like before going off at 18 to spend three years attaining wisdom, bad haircuts and massive overdrafts?

Ah, admitted the Industrial Development Board, there appeared to be something amiss with the figures. Further investigation revealed that the original source, Regional Trends, had actually been referring to the number of 16-year-olds in further education - otherwise known as school or college.

Still, look on the bright side, eh? The staying-on rate, at 99 per cent, was still higher than anywhere else in the UK (87 per cent in Scotland, 77 per cent in England and 66 per cent in Wales). Wasn't that something to brag about around the world?

Well no, actually. A closer reading of Regional Trends revealed a health warning: that the Northern Ireland figure was not comparable with other countries because it includes "some element of double counting".

Finally defeated, the Industrial Development Board has agreed to withdraw the factsheet for correction. It should make fascinating reading.

It has been said that parody is impossible in the 1990s, where truth is inevitably more risible than fiction, and the latest casualty appears to be school dinner jokes. Cornish school pupils may be less ready to quip about cockroaches, rats and slugs submerged under the gravy or custard now that Rentokil - famous for exterminating unwanted beasties - has taken over the county's meals service. Even Carborundum, whose stomach for lumpy pink custard was second to none, might now think twice about partaking of toad-in-the-hole if lunching at a Cornish school.

Something peculiar has happened to the demonic Roger Ward. He has been silenced: temporarily, one trusts.

His problems began with a visit by the besuited men of the Fraud Squad to the offices of the Colleges' Employers Forum. The Vodafone Fraud Squad, that is.

They had bad news. Mr Ward's mobile phone had been making a record number of calls - four times as many as usual in one day - and the Vodafone computer was convinced that it had been cloned. Accordingly, his equipment had been cut off, pending investigations.

Mr Ward emitted a low moan. It turns out, you see, that generally not one, but two slim black phones disturb the cut of his immaculately-tailored suits: one for business, one for pleasure.

However, the pleasurephone got left on a train last week and, for safety's sake, Roger had it swiftly disconnected.

This meant double the burden of calls was being routed through official channels: perhaps enough to raise one of the Vodafone computer's eyebrows.

However, the problem was that many delicate discussions -- otherwise known as plotting - are going on at present, thanks to the long and complicated merger discussions between the CEF and rival outfit the Association for Colleges.

Temporarily cut off from his lifelines to the outer world - and for once unaccompanied by his usual succession of trills and bleeps - no wonder poor Roger looked a bit depressed. But, after all, Machiavelli managed without a mobile phone.

On the subject of mergers in the world of further education, Carborundum wondered whether it was coincidental that the new supremo of the sector's funding council, Professor David Melville, was in a past life responsible for the discovery that red blood cells could be magnetically separated.

Does he know, Carborundum wonders, what an uphill task is still faced to get vocational qualifications even slightly on the map?

A few years back the Independent ran a notorious article about national vocational qualifications. At least, that was what the writer intended, but the message somehow got scrambled to a sustained (and horrifyingly cogent) story about envy queues. And those days are not dead: last month the Guardian explained for the benefit of less well-informed readers that NVQ stands for non-vocational qualification.

Sounds like there are similarly bright sparks over at the Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority, where one of this week's key stage 3 English tests has had to go out with an erratum note.

Poor old Shakespeare has been well and truly scrambled by one of the test development agencies. A character in Romeo and Juliet is now forced to witter on about fear and doubt in a manner totally unconnected to the original.

However, it's not funny so we won't quote it: unlike the SCAA official who suggested the agency should brazen it out and, if challenged, claim the version actually came from the Second Quarto of the playwright's works.

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