Diary

1st March 1996 at 00:00
The bracing wind of free-market competition has many benefits. Even as the flames licked up large chunks of her school last week, a headteacher in Kent was accosted by three different firms of private loss assessors, all pressing their claims for the grim business of totting up the damage.

"The flying loss assessors arrived as we stood and watched the building burn," said Sheila Smith, from the Hextable secondary school in Swanley. "I couldn't believe it. According to the firemen they have young people listening in on the airwaves. As soon as they hear of a fire they phone up the assessors. Apparently its quite common."

The school was badly damaged. It lost five art rooms, three home economics spaces, a staffroom and several offices in the blaze, which is seen as a possible case of arson.

Alas, this was not quite good enough for the loss assessors who live in hope of a grant-maintained inferno. Hextable was insured with Kent local education authority, who organised their own assessment.

"The first thing they asked was whether we were grant-maintained," said Mrs Smith. "When we told them we were with the local authority they left."

Governors at the confusingly named Harrogate Grammar School have chosen a different course, despite the evident comforts of a local authority's disaster management schemes. They want the school, a comprehensive which starred in HM chief inspector's recent list of outstanding schools, to opt out of council control.

First they organised a ballot of the parents, the result of which is awaited. Then they consulted the staff, a process fraught with difficulty as the tin ballot box proved impossible to open.

A hacksaw was eventually commissioned only to reveal a pile of slips saying "I have already voted in the union ballot". This was an earlier poll which had, predictably, gone somewhat agin the grant-maintained wheeze.

The great Conservative mailshot scandal has moved on with a new culprit in the dock: the Rt Hon John Selwyn Gummer MP, newly Catholic Secretary of State for the Environment.

Two Richmond MPs, former party chairman Jeremy Hanley and Toby Jessel, have already been caught out using House of Commons note paper and the free postal service for what amounted to press releases. They wrote to school governors and headteachers in their constituencies as part of a co-ordinated campaign, extolling the virtues of Conservative education spending.

Mr Gummer, another former party chairman, has been at the same game. The official portcullis sits atop the riveting "news" that the Suffolk standard spending assessment for education is up a grand 5.7 per cent. As Environment Secretary he is in a good position to know such things.

How strange that he neglected to mention, first, that Suffolk already spends more than the SSA. And, second, that the government grant to Suffolk, a rather crucial element in Suffolk's ability to pay, has been reduced this year. The county's schools received Mr Gummer's missive, but their governors did not. County Hall, smelling a rat perhaps, refused to give him the relevant names and addresses.

Will he get into trouble for wasting public money in this way, you rightly ask?

Probably not, judging from the cases of Hanley and Jessel who, it would appear, received not so much as a slap on the wrist.

Academics at Nottingham Trent University are still to be persuaded that former education secretary Kenneth Clarke fully deserves his proposed honorary degree "for services to education".

As it happens, Mr Clarke is well acquainted with the chairman of Trent University's board of governors, a chap called Sir David White.

While Mr Clarke was secretary of state for health, Sir David was, and still is, the chairman of the Nottingham Health Authority. While Mr Clarke was education secretary, Sir David was a trustee of the Djanogly City Technology College and a governor at Nottingham Polytechnic. Sir David is a fellow old boy of Nottingham High School and, like Mr Clarke, a fan of Nottingham Forest.

Some lecturers have threatened legal action over the award. They point out that Mr Clarke's latest service to education is, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Pounds 300 million cut in the budget for higher education. But this week, the governors agreed to plough ahead regardless.

The Cambridge bookseller Galloway and Porter is having no luck in its bid to shift Things to come - the Tories in the 21st century. This is the hugely remaindered oeuvre of one-time education secretary John Patten, originally on sale at an incredible Pounds 17.99.

Stacks of his indigestible ramblings almost engulfed a recent warehouse sale, our spies report, even at the desperate price of Pounds 1 for the hardback.

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