The Return of Phil Harrass Private HMI

5th September 1997 at 01:00
I stopped the Herald on the kerbside by a bridge over the Water of Leith. The local cops hung around waiting for the ambulance to leave. Another headteacher had gone over the side. Like the last one, this one had survived. I had a quick word with the medics. They reckoned he would make it but it would be some time before anyone could get any sense out of him.

I thought of some of the heads I'd known. "Any sense out of him?" I said to anyone who was listening. "Reminds me of the old joke: 'Hey doctor, will I be able to play the piano when my arm heals?' 'Of course!' 'Well, that's swell, because I couldn't before'." Nobody laughed.

Donald the Lemonsucker had not really known what to do with a private HMI so I got a lot of the bizarre cases nobody else wanted. I wondered if the cops could sense my disappointment that the Lemonsucker hadn't given me an assistant in the shape of a leggy redhead who called me by my surname when I told them who I was.

"This is hardly a school case," said a thin-faced cop. "The guy might have been a headteacher but that's where it ends. He was a jumper. Left a note. "

"Mind if I see it?" Thin-face passed the note. It was like the last one. Talked about the stress of trying to meet targets. Trouble was, it was on the same sort of paper and in the same kind of ink. Someone was trying to put the frighteners on these guys or to shut them up permanently. In my book, that meant they were about to blow the whistle on something big. I thanked the cop and headed off to pick up as much paperwork as I could from the schools involved.

Both schools had taken new admissions on the same day last month. In each case the new kid had been a five-year-old girl and both girls had the same date of birth. I grabbed some sleep. I wanted to see the brats the following day.

There was nothing remarkable about either girl. But they were absolutely identical. I had a feeling in my gut about this one and it wasn't a nice feeling. I went home, rang up Johnson Millar, my contact from the computer world, and asked him to do a bit of hacking. I told him what I thought the password might be if he hit any brick walls.

He called me next morning. I had been right. Both kids, and a few others he told me about, were placing requests who could be traced back to a research institute. The joint's funding was a mess and legal restrictions prevented them carrying out the work they wanted to. Johnson reckoned they were supplying the kids to order, clones of the sort of bright pupil who would help a school climb up the league tables or whatever replaced them. "You were right about the password being dolly," he said.

I called the Lemonsucker. A couple of hours later he phoned back to fill me in. "We found five dollies," he said. "We're putting out the story that they were quintuplets whose parents wanted no publicity when they were born. The rogue research unit has been closed down. The people in charge seriously believed that not enough intelligent people have kids while what they called the 'thick unwashed' pop them out once a year from 16. Making money from devolved school budgets was a bonus. But we can't prove that they were pushed rather than jumped."

We went through some formalities then he hung up. I flicked the television on. An old episode of Taggart was showing. I sat down and watched it. The star was no oil painting but at least nobody else looked like him.

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