Prime purveyors of pottiness

26th May 2000 at 01:00
WHERE do all the current ideas come from in education? Nearly every day there is a fresh initiative. The best are exciting and feasible, while some are interesting but far-fetched. A few are downright potty.

I like many of the new initiatives, but they are like chocolates: the good ones are tasty; too many make you sick. So I have been investigating the intricate sociology that surrounds them.

Reading about new proposals for "study support" set me thinking about the issue of novelty. Extra-curricular activities, like five-a-side football, are now called "study support" to give them respectability. Counting goals is bound to support the numeracy hour and GCSE maths.

As I waded through a sea of acronyms and initiatives I suddenly came across proposal 938b, a new breed of people whose job it will be to interest members of the community in supporting education. (Yes yes, could be good, proposal 938b, tell me more). They will be known as community education champions. Er . . .

This initiative must have originated in the North. The conversation probably went like this. "I've got a new idea, Mr Ramsbottom."

"Spit it out then, Arkwright."

"Why don't we get people in the community to support education?"

"Ey up, Arkwright, that's a champion idea. Aye. Reight champion."

But if you take such a job, how do you introduce yourself without feeling a wally? "Hello, I'm Arnold Champion, your local community education champion". Northerners like me can then reply: "Champion, Mr Champion".

In an effort to understand the aerodynamics of the initiatives industry better I went to visit its headquarters at Novelty Manufacturing plc, a top-secret location in deepest Rochdale. Here hundreds of new ideas are turned out every week, using state-of-the-art technology.

Arnold Champion himself showed me round the vast complex.

He explained how the initiatives process began in the Generation Mill. In this section every single worker is under huge pressure.

No new ideas, no job. Each operative has to meet tough daily and weekly novelty target. It doesn't matter whether the ideas actually work, volume is the first requirement.

Once the ideas have been spawned they are carried by conveyor belt to the Assessment Shop, where they are fed into a large machine to be assigned a "sexiness factor", on a scale from one to 10. Each idea rolls slowly through the machine, which chunters, growls or coos as it scrutinises the strengths and weaknesses of every facet, assessing its public appeal.

Next door to the Generation Mill is the Restoration Shed.

Here practices from former times are pulped and beaten into new forms. I talked to Olive Champion who can still reshape old ideas by hand. She finely shreds second-hand educational priority areas and skilfully recasts them as education action zones.

It was fascinating to watch her melt down a battered old grant-maintained school, pour it into a specially constructed mould, and then prise out a shiny foundation school. She is an expert at taking a 19th-century lesson plan and turning it into a brand new literacy hour, or remoulding a member of the Spanish Inquisition into a school inspector.

The Packaging Plant is where the ideas are finally polished and labelled before being launched on the public. Choosing the right term is a fine art and Sally Champion, head of labelling, explained how she had agonised for days over whether to use the term "World class tests for nine-year olds" or "Complete bollocks". In the end the phrase "world class" won because it got a score of 10 on the Assessment Shop machine, even though it has no meaning whatsoever.

So next time you are tempted to sneer at a new initiative, just think of Arnold Champion and his beleaguered colleagues. It may seem a daft idea to you, but it could be life or death to some poor beggar sweating away in the Generation Mill at Novelty Manufacturing plc.

Welcome all good initiatives with open arms, and when the Snakes and Ladders Hour and Hopscotch Education Champions are launched on an ungrateful world, just remember to say: "That's champion, Mr Champion, reight champion."

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