Lack of snipers turns MP sport into big yawn
IT is supposed to be a valuable opportunity for opposition MPs to hold ministers to account, questioning them in detail on the intricacies of education policy.
But Education and Employment Questions is the poorest show in Parliament, according to veteran Commons-watcher Matthew Parris.
Looking back on what was probably the final Education Questions of this Parliament, former Tory MP and Times sketch writer Mr Parris described the performance of ministers and their opponents as "the pits".
He told The TES: "Education questions is the most abysmal of all the departmental question sessions.
"The ministerial answers are the most jargon-ridden and meaningless, the backbench questions are the most sycophantic and mindless and the Tory questioning is of the most yah-boo and unconstructive type.
"I never get the feeling that there's any serious questioning or thought going on out there, just the mindless repetition of slogans. It seems to be a pretty sterile arena of political discussion."
Mr Parris said only Education Secretary David Blunkett and his deputy Estelle Morris came out of the encounters with anything approaching credit. Shadow education secretary Theresa May, though confident, was "a bit dull", while Liberal Democrat spokesman Phil Willis "just sounds like a representative of the National Union of Teachers".
Mr Parris's evaluation was underlined last week as Mr Blunkett used the session to remind everyone that Education Questions was nothing compared to his recent appearance before NUT left-wingers in Cardiff.
He told MPs hat the union's annual gathering had been a "nightmare" for both him, and political opponents, Mrs May and Mr Willis.
Observing Mr Blunkett's relaxed demeanour on this occasion, one could see why the two events could not compare. Given a last chance to quiz the man - widely predicted to be the next home secretary - on his four-year record at education, Mrs May and Mr Willis really did nothing to dent his confidence.
Mrs May repeated her rather tired slogan that Labour has been "all spin and no delivery" on education, diverting less money as a proportion of national income to schools than the Conservatives.
Mr Willis limited his attack on the "nightmare" bureaucracy of performance-related pay. But this just allowed Mr Blunkett to compare it to the bad dream that was the NUT conference, to mention this year's pay award, and then to move on.
And that, apart from some narrowly-focused Conservative attacks on overly-prescriptive exclusion targets and the recent, botched school achievement awards, was that.
Cue Blunkett, to emphasise that this appearance was as nothing to the metaphorical mountains he has been climbing all his life.
Asked about the relative merits of pupils learning French or German, Mr Blunkett took us back to the 1960s. "My only regret is that I learned a language called Esperanto at school," he said.
"It was a very good idea at the time, but got me into certain difficulties at the age of 16 when I used it in Paris."
The mind immediately boggled at the thought of a blind teenager apparently alone in an incomprehensible foreign city. When you've faced that sort of ordeal, the likes of Theresa May can hold few fears.