If there is a single biscuit left to be taken nowadays, then the latest Government wheeze takes it. Schools are in desperate need of repair, thousands of teachers may lose their jobs, there is not enough money for books and equipment. So what does the Government do? Dial 999? Build new schools? Set up a book fund? No, none of these.
The Government announces that it is appointing some additional supremo, to be called, apparently, the Chief Contractor, whose job it will be to improve teachers' image. In the derelict world of politics in which we now live, that is what we academics, after deep reflection on every philosophical standpoint from Plato to the present day, and profound analysis of all the relevant contextual features, call a barrel of crap.
Government strategy on education consists of creating a problem; then, against all advice, compounding it; next, accusing everyone else of starting it; before finally paying a fortune to resolve it. This is precisely what happened with the first version of the national curriculum: it was far too complex, everybody complained about it, ministers insisted on ploughing on to the end of the furrow, then they blamed the educational establishment, whoever they were, for the very muddle they themselves had put through Parliament, and finally they congratulated themselves for calling in Sir Ron Dearing to clear up the mess.
It all reminds me of a bizarre arsonists' convention. The arsonists meet, decide which building to torch, then they denounce the firebug, call the fire brigade and claim the reward. Teachers have a poor image largely because they have been rubbished in speeches and in the press by the very ministers whose successors are now having to hire image consultants to repair the damage. Very sick. It's enough to rot your elbow patches.
Image consultancy is a legacy of the Kenneth Baker era. Like the Ancient Mariner's albatross, the belief that the image of something is more important than its reality continues to hang round the neck of education, nowadays in the form of glossy brochures and image consultants. As schools battle on, with teachers doing more and more for less and less, the mirage of Mr Smug lingers. Look up as you walk through a school and you will see hanging there, like a wisp of cigar smoke, Baker's bespectacled smile, as his after-image still pulls the invisible strings.
No doubt the Chief Contractor will be paid a zillion a year, and for what? The very term "Chief Contractor" suggests the usual market-mad approach. Presumably people will bid for the contract. or does the word "contractor" imply that someone from the building trade will do it, using all the subtlety of the JCB approach to image-making? "Roll up, roll up, semi-detached teachers on the left, completely detached teachers on the right."
More importantly, what will the Chief Contractor actually do? Will the conversation go something like this?
"Ah, come in, Mr Ramsbottom - Albert, isn't it?" "Er, yes, Chief Contractor, Albert Ramsbottom. I teach PE at Gasworks Council School."
"Indeed, indeed. Now let's have a look at you, Albert. Yes, I can see some possibilities. Is that your Hillman Imp outside, by the way, the blue one with the yellow front door?" "Yes, Chief Contractor, I'm sorry about the door, only somebody ran into me and I couldn't afford a new door, so I had to get a second-hand one. I'll paint it blue as soon as I've got enough paint, but I can only afford one touch-up pencil a month on my salary."
"Well, I was thinking more of a Jaguar XJS or a Mercedes 500 SL, something with a bit more image, but we'll leave that for the moment. Now look here, Albert, I'll get straight to the point. I'm not happy with your name. It sounds so, well, Northern."
"But my dad was called Albert, and my grandad."
"We need something a bit more up-market. How about changing it by deed poll to Algernon Cholmondley? Yes? Good, that's settled then, I like the ring of it. So the next matter, or 'image challenge' as I like to call it, is the name of your school. You see, Algy, it's all wrong. 'Gasworks' sounds so common, 'Council' suggests you haven't had the good sense to opt out, and 'School' is much too ordinary."
"But we're right next to the gasworks, Chief Contractor, and a lot of the pupils' parents work there."
"No, it just won't do, Algy. I see it more as 'Harvard Executive College'. Make sure you have a new sign erected at the entrance."
"But we're in Scunthorpe, Chief Contractor."
"No matter, research into image-making shows that clients are willing to suspend disbelief. Now, we must do something about your tracksuit. Why does it say 'PE, Loughborough' on the back?" "That's where I did my training. It's highly regarded in the PE world."
"I'm sorry, Algy. Not enough oomph. I want you in a gold shell suit with 'Aerobic Science, Oxford'."
"But I don't think they do PE at Oxford."
"No matter. If you'd like to report next door before you leave, Algy, you'll be given the full manicure, hair tint and dental treatment. Our colour consultant will issue you with a personalised wardrobe brief, and I'm prescribing our 20-hour elocution course to get rid of some of your Northern vowels.
"Throw those Hush Puppies in the large dustbin by the door, and collect your designer shoes and signed photograph of Kenneth Baker as you leave. Anything else?" "Thank you, Chief Contractor, there is just one more thing. I hope you won't think I'm being greedy, but do you happen to have a spare pair of those Giorgio Armani elbow patches you're wearing?"