The Izbicki Report: News From The Front Line of Education

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The Independent Online
Plato had it easy

Oh, what a night it was! Alexandra Palace has never seen more teachers than at last Sunday's 1999 Teaching Awards. And can you imagine any other country having a Prime Minister who would turn up, as ours did, quietly and unannounced at Scarcroft Primary School, in York, to present a bust of Plato - the teachers' Oscar - to Norma Machell, the Primary Teacher of the Year, or kick off Sunday's awards by saying "Hello, I'm Tony Blair"?

Every party and all the teachers' unions have supported these awards, which, for once, celebrated the success and hard slog of all our teachers. Chris Woodhead, the the Chief Inspector of Schools, was conspicuous by his absence. At his office, I was told without so much as a blink of an eye: "He had a prior engagement somewhere else." But David Blunkett was there and stayed throughout the evening after giving Jean Hislop, of Cliffe Hill School, Halifax, her award for school leadership in a primary school. Stephen Fry, who with Gaby Roslin presented a one-hour live broadcast of the show, put it into context: "Plato, a great teacher and philosopher, didn't have to referee soccer matches twice a week, supervise the chess club, keep the keys to the computer room, mount the school play, schmooze with parents, stay up marking till two every morning and put up with changes in the syllabus. ."

And Bob Jennings, an award winner of St George Community School, Bristol, spoke for the country's 400,000 teachers: "I feel very fortunate to be stood here. Lots of people could be stood here." He was right, of course, but Sunday was just the start. David (Lord) Puttnam, the film producer whose brainchild it all was, has done more to pull up our declining teacher- training recruitment figures than the Government's entire advertising campaign. Congrats all round.

Musical discord...

Ken Robinson, the professor of arts education at Warwick University, came to verbal blows at last week's Music Education Conference when he questioned why maths, science and English were considered more important than art and music. Music, he said, had been downgraded by government after government as irrelevant to the country's economic development.

"You used to be able to get a job if you had a degree, no matter what degree," he exclaimed. "Now it's got to be an MA or even a PhD. What will employers want next - a Nobel prize?" Charles Clarke, the School Standards Minister, pooh-poohed the very suggestion. Universities, said Mr Clarke, stood in the way of the progress Robinson was seeking. As for music, the Government was chucking more and more money at the subject. I'm sure that we shall all remember Mr Clarke's stirring words when the next music teacher is made redundant.

...and harmony

Today I can reveal that Mstislav Rostropovich, the distinguished Russian cellist and conductor who now lives in France, has agreed to be the new president of the Yehudi Menuhin School at Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey. The choice had been that of the school's first president and founder, Lord Menuhin himself. Shortly before his death last March, he asked his daughter, Zamira, to approach Rostropovich. At last weekend's memorial concert by some of the school's pupils at London's Wigmore Hall, Barbara Fisher, chairman of governors, read a fax from the great man, accepting the honour. Rostropovitch, a youngster in his seventies, has had awards heaped upon him throughout life. He holds 30 honorary degrees, including doctorates of music from the universities of St Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge. He is an excellent choice for a school that turns gifted young musicians into dazzling virtuosi.

Wizard prang

Terry Pratchett, the comedy fantasy writer, was yesterday made an honorary doctor of letters by Warwick University. He turned up early in magician's outfit, complete with wizard's hat and wand, and transformed Professor Ian Stewart and Dr Jack Cohen, two of the university's researchers, into "honorary Wizards of the Unseen University". This was a reference to the fictional college run by wizards in Terry's books. And why these two chaps? Because they collaborated with Terry on his latest opus The Science of Discworld.

And finally

The City of London has been governed for more than 800 years from Guildhall, which is among the capital's best-preserved and most colourful buildings. So when two dozen fifth-formers from Berlin's Herder Schule visited London last week, I joined them on a tour of the Corporation's historic home. Our guide, Barry Mortimer, pointed to the statue of Winston Churchill. "Can any of you spot what's missing?" he asked. One Berlin lad was quick off the mark. "There's no cigar," he ventured. "That's right. And do you know why?" Silence. "Because smoking is not allowed here!"