Word of Mouth

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What it's all about

Don't you just feel a teensy-weensy bit sorry for poor Chris Woodhead? Everyone is against our chief inspector: teacher unions, senior educationists, junior educationists, education authority chiefs. Now even Lord Puttnam, the film producer, and an all-party parliamentary education committee have pounced on him. But he still has one ally - our dearly beloved, ever- smiling PM. And, ipso facto, David Blunkett who, I suppose, must follow his master's voice.

Has this trio ever considered what education is actually meant to achieve? Jim Callaghan tried once and ordered Shirley Williams to stage a Great Debate. It didn't get far. Now there's another valiant attempt, this time by the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce). Its report, Opening Minds - Redefining the Curriculum for the 21st Century, produces five broad categories for us to ponder.

Pupils, it says, should understand how to learn, and learn how to think - and enjoy learning for its own sake. They should achieve high standards of literacy, numeracy and spatial understanding and be able to handle information. They must understand how society, government and business work and be able to manage their own financial affairs. They should be capable of operating in teams. And they should manage their own time, celebrate success and cope with disappointment. Most decent teachers already know all this. But I commend it to Messrs Blair, Blunkett and Woodhead.

Magical music

Have you ever been caught up in a web of magic? I was when I went to the Barbican Centre last week to join hundreds of youngsters and their teachers for a musical tour of the world. The huge stage, normally occupied by symphony orchestras or university graduation ceremonies, held just eight young men and women and a pile of musical instruments ranging from a penny whistle to a giant alpenhorn.

For rapid costume and instrument changes, nothing beats Blackadder Brass, which tours the country with educational shows that kick-start the imagination of young audiences. From the moment the lights dim and clouds of blue smoke are released, there are deafening screams of joy and expectancy. A narrator then transports us through space around the globe, stopping at each country to listen to the ethnic music as performed by this versatile team. One of the members, Gavin Edwards, last appeared at the Barbican as horn soloist in Schumann's Konzertstuck. Not only did he play a series of wind instruments last week, but he also appeared as the back end of a dancing panto cow.

Weather it's fish or foul

With all this changeable weather, I thought I'd find out what makes our forecasters tick. So I visited the Met Office College - just a hailstone's fling from the University of Reading, which provides degrees in meteorology (along with the Universities of East Anglia and Birmingham, which even provides a Master's in the subject). The Met Office at Bracknell employs 2,000 people, so it is little wonder that the college has some 500 students on its register, most of them Met Office chaps and chapesses.

So what, apart from the merry band of telly and radio forecasters, do all these people do? Well, there's always the likes of Richard Branson who needs to know what winds are blowing before taking off in his balloons. The civil aviation industry in general, newspapers and loads of local radio stations also make constant use of forecasters. But most of all, it is the defence industry that requires their services. Nato forces needed to know about the weather prior to their bombing missions. Not so surprising then, that the amount spent assessing the weather each year is a cool pounds 155m. It makes the college fees seem almost like a ray of sun - pounds 18,200 for the initial forecasting course - and that's inclusive of accommodation. A six-week advanced course is a mere pounds 6,700. I looked round the facilities, which include a super little radio studio. You have to pass radio broadcast training to get anywhere. If you fail this bit, you're told to look for an alternative career. And the telly? Yes, candidates are videotaped and dear Bill Giles, who heads the Beeb's weather centre, has the task of sifting tapes for talent

Cardinal value:

My lasting memory of Cardinal Basil Hume on the eve of his funeral, is of him standing before a congregation comprising mainly boys, girls and teachers of a comprehensive that had been labelled a "failing school" by Ofsted and closed by its local authority. The cardinal, who was celebrating a Mass to commemorate the school's 40th birthday, pointed a finger at his congregants and exclaimed: "Let no one tell you that you are failures! No one! It is society that has failed you." He managed, in one short homily, to restore some of the faith and self confidence sadly lost by the pupils and staff of St Richard of Chichester Roman Catholic School in the north London borough of Camden. Not many priests were then, little more than a year ago, prepared to defend the values of a school killed by councillors at a time when its academic standards were on the rise. Cardinal Hume will be missed by far more people than the many members of his Church.

In league for nursing:

New universities - ex-polys and the like - take a great deal of stick. When it comes to those ghastly league tables, you can be certain to find them in the bottom half. The University of Luton is certainly no exception. So I take pleasure in recording the fact that the Teaching Quality Assessments people have awarded its nursing course 23 points out of a possible 24. Translated, that means "Excellent". The TQA has examined eight degree subjects at Luton over the past four years. All have been satisfactory or better. And four have had Excellents: building, communications and media studies, biological sciences, and now nursing. Not a bad track record for so young a university at Luton, the town of the glottal stop.

And finally...

Remarkable event at Windsor Castle last week. Apart from a certain wedding, 30 Americans, all members of a Washington-based educational think tank known as the Endowment Foundation, came together at St George's House to discuss educational ethics and teaching values. Dr Sir Rhodes Boyson, Britain's back-to-basics guru and chairman of the National Committee for Educational Standards, hosted a dinner for them at the swish St Stephen's Club, home of all gourmet Tories. When appetites were satisfied, Joe Horn, the foundation's president, rose and solemnly proposed a toast: "To Sir Rhodes and England." And he added a postscript: "Sir Rhodes is a genius. He has managed to get us a coach back to Windsor - with air conditioning!"