During the week of the North of England conference, Patrick Scott reflects on the distance from Whitehall to town hall
I ONCE made the mistake, in conversation with an Australian, of observing that it was a long way from London to the North-east. He paused momentarily, as people do when they have heard something exceptionally stupid and they need to reflect on the best way of re-opening communications. I should say, at this point, that my friend was a curriculum adviser based in Perth, working with schools in Western Australia.
"Do you know," he asked, with something of a glint in his eye, "how far it is from my office to the most far-flung school in the state?" Well, I'm not stupid. I could tell instantly from the way he asked the question that it wasn't a stroll round the block. I shrugged in a way that was intended to show that, without committing myself to the precise mileage, I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that the journey was positively inter-galactic.
"It's the same distance", he announced triumphantly, "as London to Moscow." I looked suitably impressed, mainly because I was, but I was not convinced. Back home, I checked. I admit that an inflatable globe is not the most accurate way of measuring distances, but even taking account of the squishy bit along the seam, I could tell that he was right.
I was reminded of this by the collapse of the railway system over the past few weeks. Any trip to London during November was preceded by several days of speculation in the office about whether it was worth trying to get through. The more adventurous among us returned with tales of dreadful privation on deserted station platforms, and ingenious ways of bridging the train-free zones that had appeared all along the east-coast line. By Christmas, I was in no doubt that we could have taught those Australian pioneers a thing or two about making it across the interior.
The geography lesson provided by the GNER train company was a sharp reminder that there are other kinds of distances that are equally difficult to cross. I first encountered the problem when the nursery voucher scheme was being replaced by Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships.
All sorts of helpful advice, instructions and guidance would drop into my in-tray on a daily basis but none of it seemed to make any sense. Then I realised that it was because the local authority I worked for already had nursery places for all three and four-year-olds. Everything produced by the Department for Education and Employment assumed hat we needed to expand, when the truth was that we needed to contract. Eventually, I developed a trick of reading which involved assuming that I was somewhere else, probably in the South, and it all fell into place.
I still relish the exchange I had with the DFEE about access awards for 16 to 19-year-olds. When, a couple of years ago, funding was top-sliced from LEAs and given to colleges, it soon became apparent that once the money was spread across the country, there was less than before in areas where the LEA had been running its own scheme. When I pointed this out, the civil servant I was talking to insisted that I was wrong. The new scheme had been set up by the DFEE to provide access funding for students and so there must be more money available. I spent the day convinced I could hear the clocks striking 13.
Most of the time, this is all done with such charm and naivety that I rarely experience more than a brief bout of mild exasperation. Sometimes, however, it goes beyond a joke. When we were all busy producing education development plans, it was particularly irksome to be told by the DFEE to remove anything that didn't match the national priorities, only for it to be revealed six months later by the Office for Standards in Education that LEAs had failed to provide any local character in their plans. In my case, the stumbling block was arts education. "What", I was asked, during the process of gaining approval for our proposals, "have the arts got to do with school improvement?" You may wonder, as I have done since, whether it was simply a joke. I fear not; it certainly didn't make anybody laugh.
Since then, we have produced a stunning dance drama about the local area, and performed it in the Millennium Dome, but only because we were sponsored by McDonald's as part of the "Our Town" project. I occasionally reflect on the irony that a multi-national company, dedicated to making sure that its products are identical in places as far apart as, say, London and Moscow, should have made possible one of the most inspirational local arts projects that we have undertaken as an LEA.
As you might be able to guess, I really enjoyed Billy Elliot too, and I had the added satisfaction of knowing that if you want to travel from Easington to Newcastle you wouldn't use the transporter bridge in Middlesbrough. If you don't believe me, I've got an inflatable globe you can borrow to check it out.
Patrick Scott is director of education in Redcar and Cleveland, but is writing here in a personal capacity