The Izbicki Report: News From The Front Line of Education

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From Woodhead with love

Last week, I spent a morning listening to our Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, praising teachers. No, honest. There he was facing a large, exceptionally friendly, mainly right wing audience and waxing lyrical about the splendid job teachers are doing. He told a conference of the National Committee for Educational Standards that when he started inspecting, nearly 30 per cent of lessons were deemed "unsatisfactory". Last year, this figure had plummeted to a mere 8 per cent. "The attitude of the teaching profession is changing," he chirped. So much so that Ofsted would cease its saturation inspections. Successful schools would undergo a MOT only once every six years. Only the weakest schools would continue to need "intervention". Then came this bombshell: "I see no point in over-inspecting good schools." Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

But Chris went even further and focused on three good schools where he had seen "outstanding teaching". I was not in the least surprised to hear him name the Yehudi Menuhin School near Cobham, Surrey (an independent that admits high-flying young musicians and turns them into world-class virtuosi); then came the Great Barr School in Birmingham (an old grant- maintained secondary); and St Neot's Infants School in Cambridgeshire. Keep it up, Chris. You may even start returning some of the morale you've snatched from the teaching profession.

Licensed to learn

Want to bag a decent job? Then you'll need to be computer literate and present prospective employers with a European computer driving licence. This is the latest course in desktop computing skills and has already won international recognition. What is more, it is available at the 68 "Learndirect" centres that opened in libraries and shopping centres across England last week. Learndirect? It's the new name for the University for Industry, which was never a pukka university and whose name didn't really catch the imagination. The project will come into full swing next autumn and hopes to provide lifelong learning via the Net to more than 2.5 million people in companies big and small by 2002.

For more information, tap into:

Star-studded parishes

A year ago, I told you about a remarkable community-based millennium project that has taken three years to complete. Filmed in south Devon and starring 1,000 inhabitants of the parishes of Thurlestone, West Buckland and Bantham East, the two-hour video, Land of Five Beaches, received its world premier to wild plaudits at the Thurlestone Hotel on Tuesday. The audience included a selection of the cast and students from the media department of Plymouth College of Art and Design, who helped to film it. Nearly 3,000 years of local history have been brought to life with the help of the Arts Council, the National Lottery, Rural Action for the Environment and others. David Smeeton, a former BBC education correspondent and news reporter, who lives in Thurlestone, researched, wrote and presented this project and Derek Fairhead, of Westward TV, directed and edited it. The community used to be steeped in farming and fishing; now its economy is mainly dependent on tourism. So perhaps we'll see excerpts of this movie on Wish You Were Here or another of the many holiday shows now on the telly. I hope so.

Instrumentally AL!VE

Followers of this column know how strongly I feel about the decline, by cash cuts, of music in our schools and how encouraging it is to see organisations such as the Schools Music Association and Music for Youth providing pupils with an opportunity to make music and appear at such musical meccas as the Royal Festival and Albert Halls. Now here's another: managers of Yamaha, the Japanese musical instrument company, spotted AL!VE, a band of young men, performing at the Granada studios in Manchester last summer, and were impressed. So much so that they decided to pilot a project to motivate young people into picking up a musical instrument and having a go.

The launch of Yamaha AL!VE is being staged tomorrow (Friday) at the 834- pupil Springwell Community School in Chesterfield. Their concert will be followed by a free-for-all try-out session for pupils and talks on how to get started in the music business.

AL!VE is no newcomer to the pop scene. They were just 14 and 15 when they started out and have been playing gigs and making television appearances for three years (their next will be at Styal Women's Prison on 19 December). Now, I know what you're thinking. Yamaha's only in it for the cash they hope to make out of instrument sales. So what? If this scheme will help youngsters make music, that's good enough for me.

Open and unchained

The only thing conspicuous by its absence at last week's reception for the new president of the Association of University Teachers, was that shiny chain they used to wear. Perhaps the AUT felt it was time to discard such baubles. Bit of a pity, that. I favour harmless traditions. At least it would have helped everyone to recognise Alan Carr, the new president. He has already broken with another quasi-tradition. He is not at your usual university but is tutor administrator at the Open University in Belfast. Although he is not the first AUT president from Northern Ireland, he appears to be the first from the OU. And I doubt whether you'll find many AUT supremos who left school, as Alan did, at age 16. He faces a tough year ahead. Universities continue to be short-changed and the morale of those working there is at a low ebb.

And finally...

Pity poor Richard Hurrell, a graduate in engineering from the University of Teesside. Richard, 23, spent large chunks of the past year hanging from a trapeze at the Circus Space School in north London, all for the planned show at the awful Millennium Dome. The Queen is meant to attend the opening night on 1 January. Now the pounds 1.5m giant rehearsal tent at the Dome has been declared unsafe and Richard, together with 161 other performers, is searching for other premises. I'd better not send him the traditional showbiz good luck message: "break a leg ..."

John Izbicki