Year of the Twerp and Big Chief I-Spy

5th January 1996 at 00:00
After attempting to work out who won the educational accolades and booby prizes for the year just ended, I have decided that it must have been the Chinese year of the twerp.

The top prize for the most breathtakingly silly public statement of 1995 must go to Education Secretary Gillian Shephard for insisting that class size does not matter. If there is one parent or teacher in the land who would swap a class of 20 for a class of 40, then I have yet to meet them.

Gillian's prize is to do a national curriculum technology project with a primary class of 40 and no money for the necessary equipment and materials.

I have little time for the man, but I would offer a can of lager and a big cigar to Chancellor Kenneth Clarke for having the courage to resist a too outrageous tax giveaway, despite the pressure from his own back benches. The Pounds 800 million so-called "windfall" in the autumn budget was only a fraction of what has been taken out of the kitty in the past couple of years, but schools could have been even worse off. Unfortunately further and higher education came off very badly and start 1996 marooned up Excrement Creek.

The prize for persistence must go to former junior minister of education, Big Mike Fallon. I shed a crocodile tear every time he was turned down for yet another constituency, but he kept popping back up like those inflatable punchbags you smack the hell out of.

I would love to don a false beard and dark glasses and pose as a potential candidate at one of these selection meetings. What on earth do you have to put on your curriculum vitae to succeed? Presumably statements such as "If I become your Member of Parliament I promise to dream up some really loony ideas that won't work."

Public relations blunder of the year, with the teaching profession at any rate, was Tony Blair's assertion that 30 per cent of schools were failing. It meant that many people, both inside and outside the profession, did not pay attention to the details of Labour's proposals because of the headline treatment of an erroneous statement.

No government can run an education system without the support and respect of teachers, as the Conservatives have shown.

If we are to meet the many demands of the 21st century then of course standards and expectations must be raised considerably and incompetent teachers must go. But the Tarzan approach, especially if ill-founded, does not work, whereas partnership does.

I would give the 1995 teacher of the year award belatedly to Charles Warrell, who died in November at the age of 106. Better known as Big Chief I-Spy, Charles was a former teacher who had thousands of parents chasing round the countryside trying to find a damned windmill so the kids could get their last 10 points and finish their latest I-Spy book. He had the clever idea of turning his successful teaching methods, based on teasing children's curiosity and offering incentives, into newspaper columns and books.

I first met Charles when he was in his 90s. Later we went to his house for dinner. Dressed in an immaculate red smoking jacket, he told fascinating tales about teaching into the early hours.

He had wanted to call the successful I-Spy books the Learning about . . . series, but his wife warned him that putting "learning" into the titles would result in zero sales. Since the series later sold 40 million books she was probably right.

When visiting a fellow village school head one day Charles heard a boy, asked by the head to perform some task, reply "OK Big Chief", and that is how Big Chief I-Spy was born.

Charles was a triumph for the Third Age, the age of healthy retirement. He lived in Budleigh Salterton, or "God's waiting room" as it is known locally. When he was 92 he bought an old oak chest, but no one could tell him its age or origins. He went to the library and sent away for books until he eventually tracked down its provenance. Ever the teacher, he then wrote an article about it which was published in a national magazine.

When he was 102 Charles rang me up. "What's all this about a new curriculum?" he began.

"Do you mean the national curriculum, Charles?" I asked, fascinated that a centenarian, retired from teaching for some 40 years, should still want to know about his former profession.

"I don't know," he replied, "I keep hearing about this new curriculum on the radio. What is it?" I described it briefly and neutrally so as not to raise his blood pressure unduly.

"Is there anything about 'communication' in it?", he asked, "that's what's important for children, you know."

I muttered about English and the "speaking and listening" attainment target. "It doesn't sound like my kind of curriculum," he went on, "but is it all written down in a little pamphlet somewhere?" I hadn't the heart to tell him that it was indeed written down in a few dozen not so little pamphlets, whose sales to children and parents would be a tad less than his own 40 million.

For me, Charles Warrell is the model of the future, an example of what today's children will do in the second half of the 21st century. It may be unusual now for someone to develop a fresh interest in his 90s, and still be curious about his former profession 40 years after retiring from it, but for today's pupils it may be commonplace.

Hence the vital importance of giving children the best possible education for a very long future. With that cheering thought I wish you a happy and successful 1996.

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