Education: Word of Mouth

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Coming full circular

Almost exactly a year ago, I praised North Circular, the newspaper produced by Middlesex University. It had become glossy and full-colour and was better than ever. I was unaware of the vociferous behind-the-scenes ructions going on at that time over the suppression of an article dealing with the marketing of the university and touching on the freedom of academic speech.

On the heel of my praise, North Circular went back to monotone, was barred from being distributed outside the campus, and its editor, Suzi Clark, was suspended when she wanted to publish the disputed article, written by an academic. Had this column provided the kiss of death? I am assured it was sheer coincidence.

Last week, Ms Clark - Middlesex's head of media relations and for more than three years its press officer - was dismissed. Her union, Unison, continues to fight her case against the university, which I suppose boils down to whether academic freedom - as long as it does not preach violence, insurrection or corruption, - should ever be censored.

But what is so ironic is that, on the very day Suzi Clark was sacked, the same university informed her that she had been awarded the MA for which she had worked since September 1996. To add to the irony, her Master's degree, which dealt with press and public relations management, was earned with merit. But what really gives this whole sorry affair a grotesque Kafkaesque touch, is that the university has now sent her a registration form exhorting her to join the Committee of Vice-Chancellors' Women in Higher Education Register, which offers incentives to improve the participation and promotion of women in higher education.

In search of women

Are you related to Hannah Brown, who taught at Blaydon County School from 1910? Or to Maud Dickens, head of Shotton Council School for Girls in Co Durham? Or to four other former teachers: Gertrude Molland, of Cobum Secondary School, Leeds; Agnes Tunnicliffe, housemistress of St Leonard's School, St Andrews; Bessie Callender, who became head of Fulham County School before retiring in 1943; and Margaret (Gretchen) Koerner (later Mrs Stepput) who spent her last years at Hackney Downs School?

All were the original six students of St Mary's College, Durham, when it opened in 1899. St Mary's, Durham University's only all-women's college, has now reached its centenary and wants to invite surviving relatives to next Tuesday's grand reception in London. So come on all you nieces, grandsons and the like, hurry up and telephone Helen Pears, the college secretary, on 0191-374 7117.

Incidentally, Durham University, which has been around since 1832, has been admitting women to full degrees (other than divinity) from 1895. Oxford and Cambridge, with women colleges well before Durham, did not do so until 1920 and 1948 respectively.

The Techno-Tardis

If you are fortunate enough to be in Edinburgh this week, you'll just have time to catch the International Science Festival to which the University of Edinburgh has made its usual major contribution. Its Technopolis - five floors of workshops and hands-on activities designed for teenagers - is at Adam House on Chambers Street. There you may enter a latter-day Tardis and witness a team of robots playing football.

You can also help create the slimiest of slime and audition as a budding Mr Fish TV weather presenter. And try solving the mystery of the stamp- sized television screen in a tiny case. When you open the case, the screen appears the same size as the one you have at home. Technopolis opened last Saturday and, alas, closes tomorrow. So hurry!

Telecolleges say hello

Staying in Scotland, Glasgow has become Europe's Learning City. Why, you might well ask. Thanks to a pounds 2m initiative, the city's 10 further education colleges have been linked to a network which is able, at the touch of a button or two, to deliver online education to the general public. Anyone may now walk, not only into a traditional educational centre, but also to reserved areas in shopping malls and public libraries, to tap into the Glasgow Telecolleges Network (GTN) and find out about virtually anything from interior design to interview techniques.

The city's museums and art galleries, its four universities, its European education partners and the BBC have provided support for GTN. Actors Dawn French, Hugh Laurie and Richard (Victor Meldrew) Wilson himself have also lent helping hands. Now that's what I call true lifelong learning. Well done, Glasgow. And well done, Helen Liddell, the Scottish Office Education Minister who took the trouble to launch GTN.

A book for inspection

I have just completed 276 of the most moving yet amusing pages I have read in many a year. The Other Side of the Dale by the poet, raconteur and visiting professor of education at the University of Teesside, Gervase Phinn, is a book I would thoroughly recommend, not only to every teacher but also, more particularly, to every Ofsted inspector. Published this week (Penguin Autobiography, pounds 6.99) it will warm the cockles of even the coldest heart.

Gervase Phinn was an English teacher for a number of years. Then, 15 years ago, he became a language development adviser and worked his way up to senior general inspector for English and drama with the North Yorkshire county council.

This book recounts some of the hilarious reminiscences of such a county inspector. Often told in the broad Yorkshire accent and the dialect of the blunt dwellers of the Dales, he makes his young children and their teachers jump from the pages and straight into the reader's soul. Inspectors are generally welcomed with open arms in the isolated schools of Mr Phinn's broad canvas. They act as advisers, and not executioners as they might do now.

There are many passages I should have wished to quote. Let one suffice: "I often heard about airy-fairy, wishy-washy teachers who supposedly believed that children learned to read by osmosis and that spellings are caught rather than taught, but I had yet to meet one." I pray that Chris Woodhead, our much-loved Chief Inspector of Schools, would feel like making this lovely little book his nightly bed-time reading.

And finally

Speaking of Yorkshire, Revel Barker, director of alumni relations at the Open University and editor of Open Eye which appears monthly in these pages, was given an honourable mention on Radio Four the other evening.

Comedy writer Barry Cryer was recalling a day when he and two fellow Yorkshiremen - Freddie Trueman, the cricketer, and Barker, then managing editor of a Sunday newspaper - spent a day at the races. A young lady took a shine to Revel, who happens to be a bearded six-and-a-half footer.

She whispered to Trueman: "Isn't your friend lovely and tall? I assume everything is in proportion."

Freddie was quick to respond: "No, madam," he exclaimed. "If it was, he'd be 9ft 10ins."

All Barker was able to remember today of that long-distant episode was that a horse called Barkerville triumphed at 16 to one.