Ham performance would go straight to video

28th February 2003 at 00:00
DIDyou happen to catch that remarkable photograph recently of Charlie Clarke holding hands with a posse of other middle-aged men? If not, I suggest you leaf through your back copies of this paper: it's a real gem.

For a start, the anthropologists must have had a field day. Clearly, there's some sort of bonding exercise going on here - and quite an extraordinary one too, given that these are men of a certain age brought up in the Anglo-Saxon tradition that says that touching is bad, but that touching another male is very bad indeed.

Before I go further, perhaps I'd better explain a little more about what is actually in said picture (I do understand that even The TES is thrown out after a couple of weeks in some households).

The first thing you notice is that Charlie and his merry men are posing beneath a banner proclaiming the usual anodyne mush about "raising standards". Don't you sometimes just feel like throwing off your clothes and running through the streets shouting, "Lower standards - reduce participation." Well I do, anyway.

Centre stage is Charlie himself, aka New Labour's Education Secretary, looking as happy-clappy as you like and clearly in the mood for a bit of a knees-up.

The four other men in the frame - there are two on either side of him - might best be described as the teaching unions' leaders, except that when you look closely you notice that neither of the bosses of the two main unions is actually joining in the impromptu conga. The man from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has presumably been excised in the interests of symmetry, while Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers wasn't at the party at all - apparently he and his members didn't much appreciate the way the invitations were worded.

Nonetheless, here they were, unions and management, holding hands and smiling broad smiles at what they had collectively just done. And what exactly had they just done? Towards the goal of raising standards - naturally - they had just concluded an agreement designed to reduce the workloads of ordinary teachers.

Yes, that's right, I repeat, they were reducing teachers' workloads - giving them more time out of the classroom for marking, preparation and all those countless bureaucratic tasks that are a teacher's lot nowadays.

All right, the way they had done this was controversial: putting classroom assistants in charge while teachers were busy with all that other stuff.

That was why the NUT decided not to show up, fearing that this could be the thin end of the wedge. In fact, so incensed was Britain's biggest teaching union that it took out a series of advertisements, reproducing the very same photograph and lambasting the other unions for their celebration of what they saw as a crap deal.

Still, for anyone in FE, it's not the type of deal that's so remarkable so much as the fact that there was one at all; and that someone in government - the Education Secretary no less - should take this issue seriously and spend his time trying to remedy it. After all, haven't our committees of middle-aged men spent the past 10 years working in precisely the opposite direction? Whether they were holding hands while doing so is open to speculation, but the product of their labours is there for all to see - Everests of new work, most of it totally useless as far as those of us who must do it are concerned.

What would have happened, one wonders, if it were FE lecturers, rather than schoolteachers, demanding a workload reduction? Us asking for less would be like Oliver Twist asking for more: incredulity all round and huge consternation in the workhouse (sorry college). I'm not quite sure who'd be the Beadle, though Charlie's certainly got the figure for it.

But let's just play 'what if' for a moment longer. What if the great and the good in FE really were trying to hammer out a deal to give lecturers a lighter load? We couldn't run to a committee - there aren't enough unions for that. So Paul Mackney of the lecturers' union Natfhe would have to play all the middle-aged union leaders. And we are not going to get Charlie along for FE now are we? So his colleges' sidekick Margaret Hodge would have to do instead.

Two is not sufficient for a conga, but it's enough to tango: and if Last Tango in Paris is a bit too salty for educational professionals, how about the two of them trying a re-make of Brief Encounter?

"Oh Paul," says Margaret, making cow eyes across the crowded Clapham Junction coffee shop, "I'm so glad I could help you out with your little problem."

"Thank you, Margaret darling," replies Paul, extracting a troublesome piece of grit from his eye. "I just love the way you're shrinking my members' workloads."

Film of the year? Oscar nominations? Somehow I don't see it.

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