Stepney in the right direction

Word of Mouth
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The Independent Online
Oxbridge, always anxious to shed its label as a lackey of independent schools, is getting desperate in its attempts to recruit students from comprehensives. Last Friday, 30 10-year-olds from Stepney, in London's true East End, were invited to spend the day at the 490-year-old Brasenose College, Oxford. Matt Forbes, 20, Brasenose's student president and a product of the (independent) King's School, Cheshire, was the man behind the event, but fervently denied it had anything to do with early recruiting strategies. "We worked together with the Stepney Children's Fund, which twins the borough's schools with Oxford colleges, and just intended to give these youngsters a brilliant day out," he told me. "Access was not our primary purpose, although we wanted them to know there were no barriers and that they could one day come here, if they wished." Matt, in his second year of German and philosophy, made sure these bright-eyed lads and lasses had a great time. Anyone in cap and gown was immediately besieged for an autograph. Even Brasenose principal, Lord Windlesham, entered into the act with gusto before the tired but thrilled youngsters returned, laden with T-shirts, pens and other college bric-a-brac to Stepney to dream of spires and aspirations.

In QEST of Queen Mum's bust: A few metres from the noise of London's Victoria is a dainty town house from which thousands of pounds are dispensed each year to help Britain's few remaining craftsmen and women further their talents. Here resides the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST), and, in a first-floor salon, gleaming with polished mahogany, is a smiling bust of the Queen Mother, her hat at a jaunty angle. Almost as beautiful as the bust is the wooden plinth upon which it sits. This has been lovingly carved by Jonathan Harris, a Brunel University graduate in furniture design and craftsmanship and one of many QEST award holders to have reached pinnacles of distinction. Another past winner - the portrait painter Rupert Atkinson - wanted to take a course at the Florence Academy of Art, and the scholarship provided the necessary funds. On completion, the Charles H Cecil Studios in Florence - one of the few schools of art that still teaches drawing and painting in the manner of the Old Masters, appointed him head of its drawing department. He has been commissioned to paint portraits of the Royals, starting next month with the Duke of Edinburgh and followed by Prince Charles and the Queen and Queen Mother sometime next year. Among current QEST winners is Charlotte de Syllas, an East End jewellery maker, who was awarded pounds 10,000 to cast intricate glass forms on a delicate scale. She has already spent six months studying this method at the University of Wolverhampton, which houses one of the country's leading glass research units. Age, by the way, matters not to the Trust (Charlotte is 53; the youngest winner was 19). What matters is pride in one's craft and the desire to take it still further. Awards range from pounds 2,000 to pounds 15,000. So, if you think you stand a chance to bag a millennium scholarship, all it will cost you is a 31p stamp to stick on an A4 reply envelope. Send it to The Secretary, The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, 1 Buckingham Place, London SE1E 6HR. Applications must be completed by 17 January 2000. Go to it.

Zucker and spice: Perhaps I should not have read A Class Act on train journeys. It was written by a couple of primary teachers called Jonny Zucker and David Parker and claims to be "the funniest book about teaching ever written... with some serious bits in between". I kept begging it to make me laugh but found my eyes straying to the doings of fellow passengers and the passing landscape. The book reflects too much truth to be funny. But then, so did Yes, Minister, which was hilarious. And The Other Side of the Dale, by Gervase Phinn, reviewed here on 8 April, is vastly funnier. Yet A Class Act (Sapphire Publishers, PO Box 22715, London N22 7WH, pounds 5.99) has its moments of glory, such as some of its definitions: "A graduate... is someone who has managed by talent or trickery to convince some collegiate body somewhere to part with another certificate." The new teacher asks: "What shall I do with the remaining 75,200 hours of my working life?" Too true to be funny. I found the "serious bits in between" - verbatim interviews with Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead, his leading adversary, Birmingham's education boss Tim Brighouse, and union leaders Doug McAvoy (NUT) and Nigel de Gruchy (NAS/UWT) - a great deal funnier, simply because none of these chaps seemed capable of smiling.

Shelling out prizes: The first I knew of the large number of grants made available by an oil company for local projects to improve the countryside was on a recent trip to Scotland. At Kinloch Rannoch, with its grand loch and majestic Schiehallion mountain, I came across a book, Rannoch, New and Old, produced by a handful of children, Clare Ellis, Martin Grant, Janice Morrison, Samantha Paul and James Shorthouse, pupils of Kinloch Rannoch School, and beautifully illustrated by Janet Barr, one of this lovely town's older residents. As part of the Shell Better Britain Campaign, youngsters transformed the outskirts of the town into a picnic area and viewpoint. They put in steps, cleared rubbish, erected a barrier along the river - and wrote the book, profits from which (it costs only pounds 3) go to Childline Scotland. Congratulations to them all. On my return I contacted Shell and found that Rannoch was not the only winner. About 150 projects a year are awarded up to pounds 2,000 each, on condition they are run by the local community, make a positive difference to the environment and bring residents closer together. If you want to suggest a project, just contact the campaign on 0121-248 5900.

And finally... As Nottingham University prepares for its Golden Jubilee reunion next month, there is no shortage of historical anecdotes. In the union's current magazine, a former president recalls one of several occasions when students occupied the Trent Building. Audrey Beecham, who ran one of the halls of residence, rushed to her office to remove potential weapons and provided students with rolls and rolls of loo paper. "Her unyielding cry that revolutionaries never remembered toilet rolls, echoed through the Trent Building," the one-time president recalls. His name: David Knowles- Leak.