Education: Word of Mouth

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How many heads can there be who have sung with a professional opera company and also appeared on Top of the Pops? Step forward John Dunston, head of Leighton Park, a co-ed Quaker boarding and day school in Reading and new chairman of the Society of Headmasters and Headmistresses of Independent Schools, a mouthful better known as SHMIS. A graduate of Cambridge and York universities, he taught for a period in Germany and did a bit of moonlighting with the Hamburg State Opera.

A little while later, he performed with a group called The Congregation and in 1971 appeared on Top of the Pops with a record that reached No4 in the charts.

Another new boy is David Farrell, head of Hydesville Tower School in Walsall, who has just become chairman of ISA - the Independent Schools Association. He was among the very first to recognise and publish the works of a fellow student at Queen's University Belfast, Seamus Heaney. And the 1999 chairman of HMC - the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference - is James Sabben-Clare, head of Winchester College since 1985, and architect of the HMC's inspection scheme which could teach our dear Chief Inspector of Schools a thing or two. I have good memories of James' father, Ernest, who was chief information officer to Oxford University in the Seventies.

As for a new girl, Rosanne Musgrave, head of Blackheath High School in south-east London, has become president of the Girls' Schools Association. Her school, a member of the Girls' Day School Trust, has obtained Government funding to probe the impact of the awful Millennium Dome on the people of Greenwich. My congrats and best wishes to all four newcomers.

Learning to go straight

I rarely visit prisons. Tuesday was an exception. I could not resist going to HMP Wandsworth to meet some hardy ex-criminals who had served time for one crime or another but found salvation in education. Angela Devlin, who has become Britain's leading authority on prison life, features them in her latest opus, jointly written with Bob Turney - Going Straight (Waterside Press, 01256 882250, pounds 18). Turney, 55, had spent 18 years in and out of jail before burying himself in study and getting a Reading University degree in social work. He is now a qualified probation officer.

Among the many others present at the book's launch and featured in it was Bob Cummines, 47, once a gangland hitman who never went to bed without a pistol to hand. He served lengthy sentences for armed robbery and manslaughter but is now in his third year of a degree in housing policy and management at Greenwich University.

Laureal Lawrence, 31, who was jailed for three years for cocaine importation, is taking a degree in criminal justice studies and training as a journalist. Terry Mortimer, 45, has a long record but took a diploma in theology at Cambridge and is now a Pentecostal minister. Frank Cook, 45, once described as a "Chicago-style gangster", spent well over half his life in top-security prisons, mainly for firearms offences. While inside Hull Prison he took a degree in sociology and psychology from the Open University. Today he lectures on crime prevention. And Mark Leech, 41, served in 62 prisons, studied law at most of them and now works as a prisoners' rights consultant with a Liverpool law firm. He also edits the annual Prisons Handbook, and runs Unlock, the national association of ex-offenders, co- founded with actor Stephen Fry, once also a young offender - before he passed his Cambridge University degree. Tuesday's launch attracted the usual gang of hacks as well as personalities including Lord Longford who never ceases to campaign for the release of child killer Myra Hindley. The book is a super read - and, as Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, puts it in his foreword: "It throws a valuable perspective on crime and punishment."

Cheque by Jowett

My late father-in-law used to collect Jowett motor cars like some people collect rare butterflies. His garden, garage and attic were a treasure trove of highly polished vintage Jowetts and spare parts. So it was with nostalgia that I learned that the University of Bradford is to benefit from a trust fund in memory of Benjamin Jowett, founder of the motor company. Every year, the seven students with the highest A-level point scores joining the department of mechanical and medical engineering will receive pounds 500. The memorial scholarships mark the Jowett family's contribution to the industrial history of Bradford and the car industry.

Not even quid pro quo

It's bad enough when students' nearest and dearest are charged pounds 10 or pounds 20 a head by universities to attend their graduation ceremony. But what university has had the audacity to slap a pounds 20 bill on its own students for the dubious pleasure of shuffling onto a stage to shake the clammy hand of a vice-chancellor? Well, I hear that De Montfort University is introducing just such a charge with this year's graduation ceremony - although it will graciously allow each student up to two guests and give away its glossy programmes instead of charging for them as in the past.

Most universities already pocket enough lucrative backhanders from photographers, video makers, gown rental companies and others who cash in on these annual beanfeasts. They really should not exploit parents - and now poor students as well - simply to pay for the lukewarm cups of tea and mediocre glasses of sherry they dare to call refreshments.

And finally...

John Chartres, an economic historian at the University of Leeds, has an enviable task. He is researching our distilling industry as it was in the 18th century when a quartern of gin (that's a quarter pint) cost the same as one of beer. Shops used to hand out free tots of gin to customers. It became so popular that one had to buy two gallons at a time. According to Professor Chartres, we drink more alcohol today than at almost any other time in history. Only three periods saw a higher consumption - the 1730s, 1740s and 1870s. It appears that each of us now downs the equivalent of 10 shots of whisky per week - enough alcohol to sink an average sized navy. Hic!