Diary

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Shadow education secretary David Blunkett seems to have had one hell of a week, what with being bullied by an unfriendly gang of Sirs and Misses at the National Union of Teachers conference in Blackpool and failing to deliver a previously-publicised passage of his speech which implicitly criticised party leader Tony Blair on his choice of school for his son.

But his curious behaviour in the matter of the speech is apparently not without precedent. Last week, the pack of hacks at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers bash in Harrogate was given advance copies of the Blunkett speech, copies which contained that controversial section on what to do with failing schools. The mobile phones were humming. A story was born.

Mr Blunkett duly delivered his speech to an increasingly anticipatory hall... sans the key passage. And it was left to a puzzled union general secretary, the wily Peter Smith, to ask Mr Blunkett to explain to the conference about a story which, he pointed out, would hit the headlines the following day.

To change one's mind about the controversial content of a speech once could be considered a misfortune... to do it twice begins to look like a policy.

Notice anything odd about the coverage of the ATL conference this year? That there was rather a lot of it, in fact? Blame the presence of every educational hack in what was once Fleet Street, since for once the genteel bash did not clash with the annual bunfight of one of its livelier union siblings. Even Socialist Worker sent a reporter.

But you can't please everyone, and so a motion was passed requesting that the timing of the "assembly" (as they call it: nothing so common as a conference) should be dictated only by the convenience of members, rather than with an eye to garnering publicity. The reaction of Peter Smith is not recorded, but a grinning Richard Margrave, the ATL's press officer, was heard muttering: "Looks as if I'm going to be out of a job next year."

And all for doing his job properly.

The gremlins have been at work in the computers at the Department for Education, leaving officials there with red faces and a possible bill to pay.

In January this year the publisher John Catt approached the statisticians in Sanctuary Buildings wanting to use parts of the league tables on exams and truancy for its Directory of Maintained Secondary Schools 1995.

For an appropriate (but sadly undisclosed) fee, a computer disk was dispatched to John Catt's Suffolk headquarters where the publishers, following the DfE's instructions to a T, disgorged the information to set out the results for the book.

It was only two weeks ago, when calls came in from irate head teachers, that John Catt found something amiss. Why, demanded the heads, was the figure for unauthorised absence so high, sometimes 10 times more than the real figure?

After a few more calls it became clear that the figures printed were for authorised absence, not truancy.

Back to the DfE's number crunchers went the book's editor Derek Bingham, only to discover that, while the right disk had been sent, the accompanying instructions had transposed the commands for finding the two different figures for absent pupils.

But by then 100 copies of the directory were already with customers and a 2,000 print run was waiting to be dispatched, each containing a personalised humiliating howler for every secondary school in England. John Catt was forced to print sticky labels with a correction for every copy.

With an understatement that does him credit, Mr Bingham tells Carborundum: "It's just plain dumb, the whole thing." He was less succinct about the cost of the glitch or how far his "negotiations" with the DfE have progressed to retrieve the cost.

It appears the instructions that were sent to newspapers at the time of the tables' publication had their own erratum, explaining that the figures for absence were the wrong way round. But this failed to make its way a few months later into the package that was sent to John Catt.

The firm, according to the DfE, has accepted the department's apology.

Much wringing of hands over the small number of girls doing physics. Their reluctance might be explained by a letter received by the King's High School For Girls from a Dr Cyril Isenberg at the British Physics Olympiad.

Headed "Miss J. Siggers", the letter begins: "I am pleased to inform you that the above student is among the top 16 students in the British Physics Olympiad Competition . . . we wish to invite him to Harrow School on Tuesday 18th April to tackle a three-hour examination. The enclosed letter . . . gives further information for the student. Could you pass it on . . . or forward it to him."

Call Carborundum old-fashioned, isn't observation a key part of science?

Primary schools opening the vast parcels containing their key stage 1 and 2 papers have been somewhat startled by the instructions they contain on the action to be taken if anything is missing: "Contact the distributors - The Christians."

This, apparently is the South London firm routinely used by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Any complaints from Muslim schools? "Not so far as I am aware," said a spokesman, stiffly.

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