23rd February 1996 at 00:00
Fans of The Vicar of Dibley, the BBC's amusing sitcom starring Dawn French as an Anglican priest, will remember the episode in which one Reg Dwight, aka Elton John, was invited to open the church fete. The joke, of course, was that the organisers invited the wrong Reg, and were only saved from terminal embarrassment when Kylie Minogue turned up unexpectedly to hand out the prizes.

Such things can never happen in real life. . . or so one would have thought. Last Friday, however, college principals attending the annual conference of the Further Education Funding Council were led to believe that such mix-ups really can happen.The guest speaker at this austere and sober gathering was one Hywel Jones, a deputy director general for education and training at the European Commission (chosen text: Lifelong learning - the European challenge).

In his introductory remarks, FEFC chief exec Bill Stubbs left some of his audience with the distinct impression that this was the Hywel Jones the council had wanted to invite to speak at the pre-conference dinner last year, but due to a mix-up got another one. This Hywel Jones, according to our informant at the FEFC, was from the Henley Centre for Forecasting. He apparently spoke for hours at the dinner, though about what no one seems exactly sure.

However, our sensitive informant denied a mix up. She snapped: "There was no confusion. We know there are two Hywel Joneses, and this year we invited a different one."

Adding to the mystery, when Carborundum rang the Henley Centre to see what last year's Hywel Jones does exactly, we found they have not heard of him.

Who says the British can't speak a foreign language? The Queen, we are given to understand, speaks fluent French (all those governesses). So does Gillian Shephard (North Walsham High School for Girls and St Hilda's, Oxford) and proved it last week, when she popped over to Paris on Eurostar to address French employers in their own language.

Close study of the text and its English translation, thoughtfully provided by the Department for Education and Employment, shows that this was no exercise in Franglish. Mrs Shephard (for the Department assures Carborundum it was her own work) seems to have thought the thing up in French and then set an inferior hand to work on translating it. How else can one explain a sentence like this: "What I am going to say, I am sure that an audience such as yourselves who know the world of business perfectly has no need to hear it"?

Mrs Shephard's theme was a remarkably upbeat account of how the UK had triumphed over unemployment in the past three years - indeed, since she had last addressed her audience when she was merely Employment Secretary. The country had undergone "un redressement economique spectaculaire", she said, and its recovery was one of the strongest in the European Union. Unemployment was at its lowest for four-and-a-half years and the rate was now the same as that in Germany but lower than in France and elsewhere. The northsouth divide had disappeared, she blithely assured her audience - but let's have that in the original: "le clivage NordSud a disparu". One of the key factors was reducing employment costs. It was all very well for countries like France, with its history of worker participation and social dialogue, to carry on paying the earth for employees and to sign up to the Social Chapter. Britain had been through trade union excesses in the 1970s and was not going back to workers' power, thank you very much. We weren't signing but wouldn't dream of dictating what other countries should do.

Or, in the engagingly free translation of a department spokesman: "You Frogs are not doing the job as well as we are."

Nothing is where it should be any more. The telecommunications revolution means that switchboard operators can sit and be soothing in Belfast when the number you have dialled suggests they should be speaking from Bromley.

Take the Department for Education and Employment. Its headquarters is in Westminster, within hailing distance (with a very loud hailer) of the Houses of Parliament. The main switchboard number is 0171 925 5000, which suggests the buzz and hum of central London life. So why does the lady who answers have that charming north-eastern lilt? Not unlike the lilt of the lady who answers at the Teacher Training Agency (0171 925 3700) and the Funding Agency for Schools (notionally in York) and the Teachers' Pensions Agency.

Aha, Watson, that last name provides the clue. It is the only one of the four bodies to come clean about the whereabouts of its switchboard. For the Teachers' Pensions Agency is in Darlington, where the operator sits and deals with the rush of communications whizzing her way from all over the country. Not that you pay any more for unwittingly dialling Darlington from London: it's all at local rates. But would you pay the local rate if you were dialling from Darlington? That's what we want to know.

There's no need to sulk because you haven't been invited. It's only white wine and canapes and the chance to have a chat with the Prime Minister. Next Monday, the selected ones are invited to Number 10 Downing Street for an evening reception - one of a few the Prime Minister holds every year for selected groups, but the first for some time to focus on education.

The guest list of about 100 includes teachers, governors and the great and the good. The thinking, apparently, is that people working in education have had a pretty rough time for the past seven or eight years and this is a sign that they are loved really.

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