It's late, but the principal is still in her office. Wendy, her assistant, is bustling about. Before the principal can go home she has one last task to perform: composing and sending out letters of congratulations to all the lecturers who have received grade 1s in their lesson observations this year.
Wendy hands her boss the template for the letter, then the list of those who are due to receive one.
"I think there must be a mistake, Wendy. Of course all the usual suspects are here, but somehow Stephen Jones' name has been added to the list. I thought we pensioned him off years ago."
"No, Principal, he's still here. He did leave briefly back in 2007, but then someone gave him another job."
"Indeed. But he can't be a grade 1 teacher. Everyone knows he's a perennial grade 2. Look, I've got the records. All the way back to when we first brought in the observation scheme. All right, he got grade 1s in those days, but everyone did. It was peer assessment: they were too embarrassed to give each other anything but the top grade. You had to actually fall asleep mid-sentence or forget to wear your trousers to slip below a 1 then. But since the turn of the century it's been 2s all the way."
"I've checked again but there's no mistake. He must have really pulled out all the stops this year."
"Hmm. Must be something Mrs Jones is putting in his cocoa. But look, I'm supposed to write something positive about him in this letter. What does it say in his observation report?"
"It says that his lesson was buzzy."
"What was he teaching? NVQ in beekeeping?"
"Study skills, Principal."
"Ah. Three uses of the comma and how to put the pen on the page and not up your bottom. I can't praise his buzziness for that. There must be something else in that report."
"It says, and I quote, Principal: 'Excellent use of differentiation to improve communication between learners, many of whom are students with English as a second language.'"
"We are talking about Stephen Jones here, aren't we, Wendy? It's a common name, after all."
"Yes Principal. With a 'ph'. And it says that the effective use of differentiation is one of the chief weapons in his teaching arsenal."
"Hmm. Some would say that when it comes to teaching he doesn't know his arsenal from his elbow. But I don't suppose I can put that in the letter?"
"No, Principal. You're meant to praise him. There's only one actual 'area for improvement' in the report and that's to do with his use of the interactive whiteboard."
"Ah. Like learning how to turn it on, you mean."
"I think perhaps we'd better get back to the positives."
"Yes, all right. So we've got differentiation. He can tell the difference between one student and another. What else is there?"
"Well, there's that waffly stuff you find in all the grade 1 reports. The bits about learning outcomes and congruence between the scheme of work and the lesson observed. Not forgetting all the hyperbole about aspiration and inspiration."
"You can't praise Jones for being sweaty, Principal."
"Perhaps we'd better call it 'application' instead. Then he might start to think about putting one in."
"For promotion, you mean?"
"No. For his pension."
Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.