WHEN I was a child we had a neighbour who often called round for a cup of sugar. I never understood why she regularly ran out of the little granules while rarely short of other foods, but the minute we saw her figure passing the window we automatically reached for the sugar bag.
I was reminded of this neighbourly ritual when reading about the teachers who said they had borrowed from other schools such items as information technology hardware and software, so they could pretend, when their school was being inspected, that it enjoyed a better standard of equipment than was really the case.
As soon as the inspectors disappeared these loans were duly returned, which is more than I can say for our sugar. The standard reply about such matters is that you cannot beat the system. Oh no?
Inspectors entering Swinesville Infants spot a Superwhiz computer with "Gasworks Comprehensive" engraved in large letters on its outer casing, and are on to it in a trice. "'Ello, 'ello, 'ello, what's going on 'ere?", the registered inspector will cry. "Who's been a naughty boy then?" "You've got us bang to rights, guv," the head replies, before being led off in handcuffs.
I am not convinced, however, that alterations to daily classroom life can always be picked up by visitors and evaluators, even though the more blatant examples are usually obvious. I once watched a French lesson in which the teacher tried to hold a sustained conversation with the class in the language. It soon became clear that teacher and pupils were totally bemused by the rarity of the event.
In another lesson, when the teacher asked the class to split into groups, the bewilderment at such novelty, and the pupils' sarcastic remarks, suggested it was as familiar an activity as dismantling and reassembling a Centurion tank.
Not all cosmetic enhancements will be identified so readily, however. A visitor cannot be certain whether equipment being used by pupils and teachers with some assurance has been bought, rented, borrowed, or, for that matter, has fallen off a lorry. It seems sad, in any case, that poorly- equipped schools feel driven to cover up their inadequacies rather than complain. The problem is that whingeing about deficiencies is seen as a minus when institutions are inspected. Seasoned pros, like buskers, are supposed to be able to make do: crochet a cyclotron out of disused rubber bands, fashion a grand piano out of matchsticks, the sort of thing you learned in the Scouts and Guides.
If foraging from neighbours to impress inspectors and visitors is to become a way of life, then before long some entrepreneur will no doubt set up an elaborate inter-school pre-inspection loan scheme, some great countrywide pedagogical exchange and mart. "You want a few computers, pal? I can get you a dozen state-of-the art top models from Dotheboys Academy, no questions asked, for pound;100 a week. I'll tell you what, to you, pound;85. All right, the missus will kill me, but I like your face. Call it pound;75, CD-Roms thrown in." And why stop at equipment?
Football clubs take players on loan, so why not a loan or rental scheme for key teachers? Worried about the staffroom cynic pouring cold water on the head's treasured policy documents in front of visitors? No problem. Rent Mr Righteous and Miss Gushing for a peppercorn: both will enthuse about every mission statement, no matter how banal.
Poor old Bill Knackered, head of art, a bit past it, heading for a bottom grade? Take sparky young Elspeth Upbeat on loan from Bangbang Comprehensive (top marks from OFSTED), guaranteed to transform the art room from a seedy funeral parlour into the Tate Gallery for a week.
Perhaps the process can work on both sides. Does your inspection team contain an idiot who embarrasses the rest? Do you want total silence for a week, pure diplomacy? Then borrow an inflatable inspector or a waxworks figure. Probably no one will notice the irony: the unreal inspecting the unreal. But don't prop up your dummy too near a classroom radiator. A melting or exploding inspector would be even more surreal than an inter-school loan scheme.