Spicy Chris and Mel on a unicycle

14th November 1997 at 00:00
I have been puzzling over a little mystery. What brings together a former junior minister, a dyspeptic journalist and a much-admired public figure? Is it perhaps the Spice Girls?

Everybody wants to be spicy nowadays. The astonishing success of the Spice Girls has brought with it a string of admirers. World celebrities, such as Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles, were happy to be seen in their company and were soon labelled "President Spice" and "Prince Spice".

You can see the appeal. Spice is a term for those aromatic vegetables, such as pepper and nutmeg, that give additional flavour to food. The last few years have been dreary, so anything that perks us up is welcome. The Spice Girls concept is now synonymous with a sparky, no-nonsense approach to life.

I was inspired by the spicy five when I read George Walden's column in The Sunday Times a couple of weeks back.

Now you may or may not remember old George. He was one of that production line of junior ministers under the last Government whose epitaph read, "They came, they went".

George Walden was, I thought, better than the rest of the droids. Theodore Thingy, Agatha Airhead and Henry Hoozhee had no idea. George was a cultured man who did have an idea. He may have had only one idea, and it wasn't a particularly brilliant idea, but at least he had one. George's idea was to spend public money on sending children to private schools.

The trouble with bestriding a single idea is that it is difficult to get anywhere on just one wheel. Riding the same unicycle over and over again can eventually make someone wobble round and round in a circle.

Anyway, the other weekend I was quietly reading George's familiar rant in The Sunday Times about the demise of the Assisted Places Scheme, when I came to a bit where he described me as being "the problem" in education because of my "complacency" and "old-world egalitarian instincts".

Oo er, I mused, a bit saucy of George, but who cares about being hit on the head with a wet lettuce leaf? Then I thought, complacent eh? Guilty of complacency if you don't protest, guilty of it if you do. Well, bugger it. He may be two wheels short of a tricycle, but why should we Spice Profs sit back and take that kind of tosh?

However, this is where the intriguing mystery began. I was soon deflected from penning a riposte in The Sunday Times, when I noticed the startling similarity in tone between old George's piece and a column written by Melanie Phillips in the Observer a few weeks earlier.

Melanie Phillips wrote a book last year. It was very well written, but people have been complaining about the errors and false precepts in it ever since. Teachers were accused of propagating "the doctrine that no value or activity can be held to be any better or worse than any other". I have still to meet a teacher who equates murder and charity, but I digress.

Consider the striking similarities of ideas between the two Sunday columns. Neither thinks much of schools and teachers.

George Spice writes of "the mediocrity of the whole system"; Mel Spice speaks of "our education disaster".

Both suggest that current education ministers are in conflict with each other. George claims it is "old Labour" versus "new Labour". Mel claims that some ministers believe in raising standards, others in lowering them.

Like George, Mel also attacks me, I am relieved to say. I wouldn't want all my street credibility to evaporate if she agreed with me. Mel was beside herself because I am a member of an advisory quango.

The former junior minister's and the dyspeptic journalist's hearts clearly share a common beat. But why? What do George Spice and Mel Spice really, really want? And where does the afore-mentioned greatly-admired public figure come into the mystery?

Well, another common factor in this intriguing saga is that they both seem to regard Chris Woodhead's attacks on the teaching profession as a solution. George calls him "that most intrepid of crusaders". This leaves the obvious poser, however: if Woodhead is the answer, what on earth is the question?

This cosy threesome reminds me of a radio variety show when I was a child, which always ended with the song "We three in Happidrome . . . Enoch, Ramsbottom and me". They should meet for lunch.

The good news, Spice fans, is that I have found an article that Chris Woodhead wrote in this very newspaper in the 1970s, when he was an English teacher. It shows clearly that deep down he is not Stiletto Spice, but Soft Spice.

In a piece called "No bells, no sanctions", he tells how he took his class to a residential writing school for a week.

He even wrote a poem himself and was patted on the head by the tutor, with moving effect, as he describes: "I was taken back 20 years to my miniature primary school desk, when Michael Baldwin, one of our two resident writers, said he liked my poem. This ridiculous but real need for reassurance means that the personality of the writers who tutor the course is a crucial factor in how the week goes."

Ironic indeed, but I must admit, I did wipe away a tear as I thought of little Wooders, first in his grey flannel shorts in junior school, wide-eyed and eager to please Mr Chalkie, and then later as an adult in suit and serious glasses, grateful for a crumb of approval for his poem.

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