Sixties man who's earned his poppadoms

4th August 1995 at 01:00
This is proving to be a year full of surprises, the biggest and most difficult to come to terms with being my 60th birthday. None of the other watersheds, 30, 40 or 50, meant much at the time because nothing fundamental changed. But being 60 will bring cheap travel, concessionary ticket prices and - unbelievably - my teacher's pension.

I have just posted the forms to the Teachers' Pensions Agency and am now waiting with whatever is the opposite of bated breath to learn what seven-eighths of a 1968 salary adds up to. Had I reached Pounds 1,000 a year? I think not, though that was the benchmark. "He earns Pounds 1,000 a year, you know." What riches it seemed.

Whatever I get, it is not going to buy dinner at The Savoy, I am resigned to that. But it should easily pay for two chicken dhansaks at the Royston Indian and might just cover the mid-price menu at Charlie Chan's in Cambridge. Come whatmay I intend to take my wife out for a memorable meal with the proceeds.

I should confess that the last time I promised to do this, on a wet Sunday evening in King's Lynn, we ended up in a hamburger joint which was the only eaterie we found open in East Anglia. "My, you really know how to show a girl a good time," she said, pushing something anonymous round her plate. So if there is anyone from the TPA reading this and there is any leeway to add a few discretionary increments, try not to think of them as a waste of Government money but as two extra poppadoms.

Most of the people coming to my party are friends from university or from those early teaching years: perhaps it is easier to make friends when you are young and broke. Retirement and pensions seemed a long way off then, at the beginning of the Sixties, when our lives and careers were approaching slowly, like Larkin's "sparkling armada of promises". But really we were a lucky generation. Teachers' contracts were permanent, salaries were adequate, so most of us got married soon after leaving university and started a family in the naive expectation that somehow we would survive. And we did.

Looking down my list of guests I see no one who has been left "holding wretched stalks of disappointment" as the gloomy poet predicted. There are teachers, deputy heads, heads, several profs and a vice-chancellor, and all still with their original partners. When I think of the combined contribution they have made to all those schools and communities, the students who have passed through their classes, the knowledge they have communicated, my goose-pimples swell with pride. Is that Elgar I hear playing softly in the background?

In the past 18 months I have interviewed more than 100 trainee teachers and their mentors and it has been a truly rewarding experience. I am so content in the company of teachers that it now seems an odd decision to have moved away from this world and to have stayed 20 years as education adviser to ICI. I am shocked how far and fast those industrial years have receded from memory and how few contacts have survived.

The only former colleague I have invited is my old boss, Sir John Harvey-Jones, and that is probably because he was a maverick and quite unlike anyone else in the company. We used to meet occasionally in the sandwich bar, after they had stopped serving food, and munch rolls to a low chorus of complaint from impatient cleaners trying to wipe down the tables.

He took a real interest in schools, especially in the crisis hitting the supply of science teachers and fired questions at me until he had mastered the issue.

Then he came with me to the 1986 annual meeting of the Association for Science Education in York. I was impressed, and so was everyone else, that the chairman of an international chemical company took the time to inform himself of the state of play in science teaching.

He later thanked them fulsomely in the Richard Dimbleby Lecture that he delivered that year. I am sure that all Dimbleby Lectures are the product of many hands and minds, but historians of the genre may like to know that early drafts of one paragraph in the 1986 version were stained with cheese and pickle.

Sir John is a wonderful communicator and when he combines rhetoric with good research there is no one as entertaining or informative. His recent television programmes about India, the navy and industry were effective because he was talking from experience, which made the programme about education all the more disappointing, especially his comments about teacher training.

I did not expect an impartial film, after all one of the attractions of this man is the sense of danger he creates. I like being in the company of a loose cannon with its safety-catch off and sights trained on out-dated systems and bad practice. But he did not know enough about teacher training and it showed.

Back to the sandwich bar, I think John. Brown bread or white?

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