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Alarums and excursions — and digging holes

29 September 2017

Dennis Richards on the August silly season of hi-vis jackets, university admissions, and exam systems


Future builders? Primary-school children wear hi-vis jackets out and about

Future builders? Primary-school children wear hi-vis jackets out and about

WAS it just the usual August “silly season” this year? Or will at least one of the blizzard of education stories have some kind of lasting significance, for once? Hi-vis jackets, maverick head teachers, sober teenagers (they are too busy on their smartphones), university admissions (or give it a miss?), and exam chaos (as usual).

On stepping down as Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in a speech at a conference for future leaders, advanced the view that “the best heads are often quite odd people . . . slightly maverick.” I wonder whether I would have merited this description.

I used to supervise up to 1000 youngsters on the school field on their lunch break, perched on a heavy-duty roller on the cricket square. Balls from impromptu football and cricket games were flying in all directions. Children dashed about in front of me and behind me, occasionally firing a ball deliberately in the roller’s direction. There was great hilarity all round when they scored a direct hit.

To be honest, I think I might have failed Wilshaw’s “slightly” test. When I took the said roller into the park next door to sort out a snowball fight, I was threatened with arrest. Ofsted would have a fit nowadays. I don’t think the “Wilshaw defence” would have worked. It was probably better described as a bit “iffy” — or, as my colleagues used to say, completely bonkers.

Which brings us to hi-vis jackets. The newly appointed Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, expressed her disquiet at seeing young children on school trips, in crocodile formation, all wearing hi-vis jackets. She tried a joke. “They look as if they are auditioning for Bob the Builder.

We know what you mean, Ms Spielman, but perhaps it was a mistake to cite this as an example. Conkers in goggles: maybe a bit daft. Obsessive measuring of the height of the school fence: probably OTT. But the first primary school to dispense with the practice of hi-vis jackets might find that two of the little tots have wandered off into McDonald’s, and are tucking into a Big Mac before anybody notices.


istockphotoUniversity admissions: this year there was a drop in students enrollingTHERE was much speculation as to what is or is not happening in relation to university admissions. Was this the year when we first saw the sea-change in attitudes among 18-year-olds? Is the fall in the number of students taking up places significant? It didn’t help when the press discovered what has happened to vice-chancellors’ pay. The correlation with the tuition-fees furore was too good to miss, and most ran for cover.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bolton, Professor George Holmes, however, came out fighting. He appeared to measure his academic credentials by the size of his Bentley rather than his Ph.D. Pictured alongside his luxury car, he also wanted us to know he had a yacht on Lake Windermere, as well. His success, he said, was an inspiration to his students. “Work hard, and you, too, can have a Bentley.”

I am not sure of the Professor’s academic discipline, but if it is digging, I would advise him to stop — the hole is big enough already. Average pay among vice-chancellors is £280,000 a year, and, as far as I can see, universities with a Church of England foundation are not markedly different.

They are busy digging, as well. Church of England schools have rightly been pressurised to be distinctive to compete in a crowded market. Now, surely, it is the churches’ universities turn. Answers, please.

As for exam chaos — it happens every year. This year, however, had a special flavour. Nine is now the top grade in GCSE and equivalent to A**. Older readers will remember that we had numbers grading in O levels years ago, where 1 was the top grade. This prompted a Mr Rae from Nottinghamshire to write that “I no longer feel embarrassed about admitting that I received a grade 9 in O-level maths in 1971.” Good for him.

So an apprenticeship, a job, or several gap years may become the new norm for our 18-year-olds. In the case of gap years, thankfully, things have changed. The Times Diary recently passed on a story (probably apocryphal) from the British Library. In 1887, the son of a well-known Londoner went to India to stay with his rich uncle to enrich and widen his experience. Some time later, the landowner received the sad news that his son had disappeared in unusual circumstances.

On the arrival of a coffin back in England, the oddly shaped box contained a Bengal tiger. A cable is sent immediately: “Some mistake. George’s body’s not arrived. Coffin contained Bengal tiger.”

By return came the message: “No mistake. George inside tiger.”

Hi-vis jackets might not be such a bad idea after all.


Dennis Richards is a former head teacher. He now works as a senior teaching assistant.

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