The Izbicki Report: News From the Front Line of Education

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The King ticks on

Amazing the reminiscences of some former students. Take Douglas Bilbey, who qualified as a doctor from St George's Hospital Medical School. When he was practising in Las Vegas, the "city of sin", Elvis Presley called and complained of a "scratchy throat". After Dr Bilbey had examined and sprayed the famous throat, Presley asked for the bill. "I told him there was no charge. He looked at my wrist and said: `Doc, you should have a better watch than that,' and took off his own watch, gave it to me and walked out."

Some years later, in 1983, Dr Bilbey sold the watch at an Elvis Presley memorabilia auction. It fetched $20,000. "Elvis was everything good that people claim and then some," Dr Bilbey is quoted as saying in the current St George's Newsletter.

Had the good doctor kept the watch another 16 years, I guess it would have netted a great deal more.

My literacy hour

Last week I spent an hour or two seated in a comfortable room near Wembley Stadium, eating apple pie and learning to read. We should try to put ourselves in a five-year-old's shoes. Not always easy, but loads of fun. My teacher was the Hungarian-born Eva Retkin who, in 30 years, has not only taught many hundreds of youngsters to read but has not had a single failure - and that includes dyslexics. Mrs Retkin spent 20 of those years at the Lyon Pack Junior School in Brent, not a particularly well- heeled area of north London. She is still warmly greeted in the street by ex-pupils some of whom have become doctors and lawyers.

She kicks off by introducing children to 28 different sounds - starting with the five vowels. By covering the first letter of such words as gap, tap, cap - or hen, pen, ten; tin, bin, pin and so on, the child will recognise -ap in each case, or -en or -in. The missing letter is then uncovered. But I must not give too much away. Suffice to say that her method deserves wider recognition. Eva Retkin retired two years ago, so come on David Blunkett, get your skates on.

When protest misfires

Tables were laid for a tasty nosh at which barrister Cherie Booth, aka Mrs Blair, was to be guest of honour and speak of the challenges facing professional career women. The Chancellor's Society Dinner at the University of Sussex was to celebrate not only the opening of the university's school of legal studies, but also the woman whose bequest helped to fund it. She was Helena Normanton QC, a trained teacher and the first woman to practise at the English Bar. She was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1919, when she was nearly 40, and called to the Bar three years later. When she died in 1957, she left pounds 20,000-worth of shares to the university "in gratitude for all that Brighton [Mrs Normanton's home town] did to educate me". Today, they are worth pounds 400,000, and are funding scholarships for disabled young people in Sussex.

But the dinner had to be shoved to a later date. Why? Because some 30 students had chosen that very day to mount a protest against the Government's policy on tuition fees. How did Burns put it? The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley.

Future of the Eye

The London Eye - the gigantic wheel that has visually miniaturised Big Ben - is forecast to become the capital's own Eiffel Tower. Who says so? Why, David Mercer, director of the Open University's Futures Observatory, and senior lecturer in its business school. I'm reminded of the story of writer Guy de Maupassant, who hated the Eiffel Tower yet dined in its first-level restaurant regularly. One day, Gustav Eiffel himself spotted the great man at a table and challenged him: "Monsieur, why do you bother visiting my tower when you are always attacking it?" De Maupassant replied: "I sit here, Monsieur Eiffel, because it is the only place in Paris where I cannot see the monstrosity you have built."

Here's the royal news

With even the better broadsheets filling their columns with royal tittle- tattle, it is not surprising that the Queen employs her own spin doctor. In HM's case, he is called a "communications secretary", Simon Lewis by name.

Last week he became visiting professor at the University of Cardiff - or Prifysgol Caerdydd, as the Welsh would say. In his inaugural lecture he heaped praise on the Internet connection that's been installed at Buck House. It gives the Queen "a mechanism for putting the record straight immediately and categ-orically," he explained. Well, well.

Jetting into 2000

The Japan Exchange and Teaching programme, best known as JET, has just sieved through 1,552 applications from people about to graduate - 5 per cent up on last year's total. Of these, about 700 will be flown to Japan from July to become assistant language teachers (ALTs) at every type of school. Most opt to stay on for a second and even a third year, after which time they come back fluent in Japanese. The JET Programme: getting both feet wet (edited by David Chandler and David Kootnikoff) tells the whole remarkable story. You can also find out more by visiting its website at

And finally...

I still have yet to come across a better Father Christmas lookalike than the generously bearded Professor Arthur Lucas, Principal of King's College, London University. All he requires is the traditional costume, a sack full of goodies and a few jolly ho-hos.

So I wish him and all of you the happiest of Christmases and a comfortable slide into the new millennium. This column will now take a wee rest but returns, fully refreshed, on 6 January. Till then - cheers!