Arnold Evans offers a quick guided tour to next week's Education Show in Birmingham. Grimas Theatre Make-Up will be holding the finals of a Wind in the Willows competition at this year's Education Show in Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre (March 7-9). A giggling menagerie of toads, water rats and moles, however, won't seem in the least untoward at an event which for six years has been characterised by a diversity which verges on the surreal. There can't be many market-places where punters can expect to find gyroscopes and gym-slips, minibuses and magnets, bleepers and badge-makers.
As well as the products and services, the show hosts a continuous programme of seminars and lectures covering a range of topics from school governance to tips for modern language teachers. Guest speakers include Professor Tim Brighouse, Dr John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association and Chris Woodhead, who promises to spell out the key issues facing education.
The unions, charities, pressure groups and 24 subject associations will have stands as well as SCAA, DFEE, OFSTED, NCET, NAHT, NCPTA and probably UTCAA (Uncle Tom Cobbleigh And All).
It's not surprising that so many schools in the Birmingham area arrange for at least one Inset day to coincide with the show, and that a growing number of schools throughout the country are following suit.
Burnham Infants School in Somerset, for instance, is shutting down for the day so that staff can join others from neighbouring schools to take advantage of a Pounds 100 travel subsidy offered by the British Educational Suppliers Association. "It's a very worthwhile way of spending the day," explains deputy head David Williams. "It's a chance to broaden everybody's outlook and keep abreast with new ideas." By pre-registering and deciding in advance which seminars they will attend, they aim to make maximum use of every minute that they will spend there.
Among the 14,637 who attended the show last year, 326 were from nurseries and pre-schools, 4,551 from primary schools and 1,965 from secondary. Precisely 20.6 per cent were interested in audio-visual, 11.4 per cent wanted to see furniture, 34.1 per cent looked at text books ... Many of the exhibitors regard the three days in the NEC as the single most important event in their marketing campaign.
"We've been gearing up for the show since November," says Phil Roberts of Ellison Educational, who will be launching the Letter Machine, an ingenious device for creating toys, visual aids and displays. "With a new product, it's important to be able to present it to teachers, to answer their questions and to talk to them about it."
Presumably the sight of a punter pulling out a cheque book is always welcome, but the suppliers don't necessarily expect the tills to ring during the course of the three days. This year suppliers will be hoping more anxiously than usual for last-minute orders to roll in. The latest teachers' pay award can only add to their woes, as schools are going to be struggling even harder to stretch budgets.
"Schools' own estimates for expenditure on educational equipment in 1995-96 show the first decline in recent years, a sad story averaging an 11.6 per cent cut in primary schools and 9.9 per cent in secondary schools, wiping Pounds 50 million from the UK market," says Dominic Savage, chief executive of the BESA. It means suppliers will almost certainly have to trim their budgets and this in turn will have an adverse effect on schools. "The industry's investment in research and development for new products is vital for education and such cuts are a severe blow," he says.
There is always a silver lining: with less money around, the suppliers are having to be fiercely competitive which can result in better service and attractive prices. That is certainly what the 500 or so exhibitors will be claiming as they present the multiplicity of products and services that are available to teachers - or would be if politicians cared more about sound education and less about sound bites.
* Ticket hotline: 0181 984 7711Seminar fax line: 0336 423466The show is sponsored by The TES and the School Curriculumand Assessment Authority, BESA and EMAP Education.