When Byers beat Blunkett

21st August 1998 at 01:00
EXAM results, political ratings, philosophy and split infinitives I a few things to take our minds off the Omagh horror.

The nation's teenagers breathed again as the long wait for their A-level results had finally ended - and record pass rates were achieved yet again. Cabinet ministers were also examined by a jury of 12 members from Mensa, which rated them for their PQ - a mix of IQ and assessment of political acumen.

Peter Mandelson came top with 90 out of 100; Stephen Byers, recently elevated to Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was next with 85 and Education Secretary David Blunkett fifth with 70. Islington intellectual Chris Smith, Culture Secretary, equalled Clare Short, International Development Secretary, with the bottom score of 30.

Simon Clarke, editor of Mensa magazine, said the idea was to investigate whether intellectuals could succeed in government.

"We wanted to explore the argument that they have a fatal flaw which means they cannot get to the top," he said, citing Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph and John Redwood. Where does that leave ambitious Mr Byers?

Another test was tried out by Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates, who asked 23 nine to 15-year-olds across the UK to scrutinise forthcoming versions of an encyclopedia and a few new games. "Children are the fastest learners and they are very critical users. If they don't like them, they won't buy them," said a company spokesman.

But will they buy books, we ask, as yet another dictionary reaches the shelves. The Oxford University Press's latest has maddened the old fogeys by pardoning the split infinitive. "It should be broadly acceptable as both normal and useful." Star Trek fans knew that years ago.

They won't commit such syntactical solecisms at Bryanston, the Dorset independent school, where more than 200 16 to 21-year olds met to study ancient Greek. For fun. Light relief from intensive classes on grammar, vocabulary and irregular verbs was rehearsing one of Euripides' lesser known tragedies.

Our great tragedian, William Shakespeare, is enjoying an eastern European revival as the Baltic port of Gdansk plans to build an Elizabethan-style theatre in the manner of London's Globe.

Philosophy is also staging a modest comeback as some 3,500 practitioners meet for the 20th world congress in Boston, Massachusetts. Philosophy graduates have increased by 5 per cent a year in the 1990s in the United States; it could be the passport to a successful, varied career, say some commentators. A better choice maybe than gambling, herbal medicine, brewing and golf-course management on offer at some higher education institutions.

No matter what they study students will find campus Casanovas, says Malcolm Bradbury, creator of The History Man, after the scandal over a Southampton lecturer's affair with a student. "Universities remain erotic places," he asserts.

Good news for these cash-strapped establishments: Britain is a youthful country compared to our continental counterparts. We have more young people, fewer pensioners and a higher birth rate, so more demand for education. The downside is that the trend is due to teenage pregnancies and ill-health among the elderly. Not so Cool Britannia, then. By the way, the Prime Minister was five points below Mr Blunkett in the PQ rankings. Bet Lucy's feeling smug.

Diane Spencer

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