Harry the axeman, you're in detention

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Anyone who spent a fortune on the Mediterranean seeking a little relaxation in the sun could have saved the money and enjoyed the usual summer seaside variety show in the comfort of their own armchair.

Not for nothing is August known as the "silly season". If you want to witness announcements the Government would rather you missed, or spectate at one of the many free end-of-pier reviews, then sit patiently at home and wait for the annual film show.

It was all there once more. As the sun shone, out came the comedians in baggy trousers and the clowns, right on cue: "The exam pass rates have gone up. End of civilisation as we know it. We'll all be murdered in our beds."

This year, we were told, the Government decided to tell the critics of higher exam pass rates to shut up. I am sure it had nothing at all to do with the nearness of a general election and the need to suggest that all is well in education, or to win a few friends.

One government official was quoted as saying: "It is about time these doom and gloom merchants shut up and recognised the achievement of the candidates and of the parents and teachers who have supported them. This is the culmination of two years of hard work and we should be celebrating the better results, not whingeing".

Precisely. So why has the very same Government spent the past few years moaning each summer about falling standards, and setting up rigorous and far-reaching inquiries?

Another piece of high comedy occurred in the middle of August, when many people had gratefully fled to Skegness or Benidorm. There was an announcement that would have been greeted with utter incredulity in any other decade since the beginning of time. Instead it was met with indifference.

The news that the contract for administering nursery school and playgroup inspections had been awarded to Group 4, a security company which had hitherto specialised in guarding buildings and escorting prisoners, should have taken people's breath away.

In the end it was actually a relief. It could have been much worse. In these mad and desperate times, the Government might easily have given the contract to a row of motorway cones, the traffic lights on Blackpool seafront, or to the laughing hyenas at London Zoo.

Group 4 will not actually carry out the inspections, but will be responsible for their administration. So what might the future hold?

Will two burly blokes in black leathers and crash helmets hustle inspection teams with blankets over their heads in and out of Little Piddlington Nursery? Might some Registered Inspector, while inspecting Lower Swinesville Playgroup, make an excuse to go to the toilet, and then climb out the back window and leg it into the dusk?

It seems not to matter nowadays whether or not an individual or commercial outfit has any experience or expertise in education. The whole enterprise is up for grabs. Infant school teaching can be done by John Major's hapless "Mums' army", and the inspection of schools, according to the late great Kenneth Clarke, may be carried out by anybody, even a butcher. Goodbye educational expertise and specialist knowledge.

Is it unnecessarily narrow-minded and priggish to insist on the value of relevant professional knowledge in education? After all, we don't hear of doctors moaning about refuse collectors being allowed to do transplant surgery, or lawyers complaining that lucrative prosecution and defence briefs are going to nightclub bouncers. Perhaps it hasn't been suggested yet.

Maybe the whole of education should just be opened up completely to commercial bidders. The 2nd Paras could all become deputy heads responsible for pupil discipline. Any school claiming its governing body is moribund could call in the Incorporated Association of Mortuary Attendants. The Fraud Squad might collect all the information for league tables. Geography could be taught by the Automobile Association. Their employees must have been called out to most places in their time.

Maths might be covered by Camelot, and be based entirely on the probability and statistics of running the National Lottery. Estate agents could teach English, especially the bit about familiarity with myths and legends.

In these market-mad times, however, it is only fair that if other agencies can get involved in education, teachers should be allowed to have contracts in other fields, too. Indeed, if Group 4 can administer school inspections, why cannot teachers look after the security of buildings and escort prisoners?

Useful extra cash could be earned by teachers sitting in office blocks and banks each night, playing bridge and trying not to catch the head's eye when someone is needed to patrol the corridors. Escorting prisoners would be a doddle.

"Right everybody, pay attention. Look, Harry the axeman, that's the last time I tell you. Put that hatchet down now, and get back into line. Any more of that and you'll miss playtime. Right. I'm going to call the register. Strangler?" "Absent, sir."

"Embezzler?" "On work experience."

"Pickpocket? Has anyone seen Pickpocket? Look, settle down, everybody. All right, all right. Who's taken my wallet? Come on, own up. I'm not going on until somebody owns up."

"It weren't us, sir."

"Right, have it your way. It's your time you're wasting. I'm just going to sit here, I've got plenty of books to mark. You're not going to Pentonville until someone owns up."

Specialist knowledge? Who needs it?

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