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Return of Rhodes

When Sir Rhodes Boyson lost his Tory seat at Brent North on that fateful May Day last year, I knew it would not take him long to make a comeback. The ex-higher education minister is not returning to the hustings (perish the thought; at 73 he has better things to do). But he is certainly bracing himself for another battle on the field of education. Do you remember the National Council for Educational Standards? It was a right-wing ginger group, which he chaired in the Seventies - at about the same time as he co-edited The Black Papers, then the scourge of the Left and of teacher unions. Today,their many criticisms appear to have been accepted as policy by New Labour. Well, Sir Rhodes (or, to give him his full title, the Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Boyson) is about to resurrect the NCES as the National Committee for Educational Standards. Its inaugural conference is planned for September. Expect fireworks. Among his listed Who's Who hobbies is: "inciting the millennialistic Left in education and politics".

Busk at Usk

Today I can disclose another "cash for questions" scandal, this time involving the Health and Safety Executive. Let me explain. Ever since the M40 minibus disaster in November 1993, when 12 youngsters and their teacher were killed, Pat Harris, who describes herself simply as "a concerned parent" has been leading a campaign to prevent similar tragic accidents. An annual National Minibus Safety Week was launched this week by the Baroness Hayman, Minister for Roads in the Lords, four months before its official kick-off (21-27 September) so that schools, scouts and other bodies may take advantage of a special pack produced by Busk - the Belt Up School Kids campaign. The pack (obtainable for a mere fiver from Busk at Usk, Monmouthshire, NP5 1SP) contains all kinds of goodies, including valuable vouchers to secure proper group minibus driver training for half the normal price, and cheaper first aid boxes and fire extinguishers. To prepare herself for the launch, Pat Harris approached the Health and Safety Executive with a number of important statistical questions. Some were answered. But when she posed a few more, she was told she would have to be "charged for further replies". What absolute nonsense! Perhaps the executive is unaware that our teachers and other group leaders drive more minibuses than any other EU member country. Yet Britain has still not signed the agreement for all minibus drivers to be properly licensed. Unlicensed teachers taking pupils to France or Germany by minibus, are driving illegally. Their insurance would be void should there be an accident. All of us - including the Health and Safety Executive - should give wholehearted support to the Busk campaign. You know it makes sense.

All-but-the-tea CD

The 1999 Ucas official guide to university and college entrance is fatter than ever, and is about to be available along with a remarkable CD-Rom containing details about each of the country's universities. But that's not all. It also allows you to "visit" 37 campuses by way of a veritable feast of moving and still pictures in full colour, along with music and the voices of staff and students commenting on courses, social life, the students' union - you name it. I previewed just a few, including the University of Kent at Canterbury, the University of East London and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and was impressed with the facilities on offer. Surprisingly, a number of universities have still to take advantage of this multi-medium production, which does just about everything except brew the tea. Here's an example: if you expect to obtain three A-levels at, say, grades BCC and wish to study engineering, all you need do is tap in your A-level subjects and expected grades - and, lo and behold, up will pop a list of universities that might accept you, along with course details, syllabuses and so on. You can swan through more than 45,000 courses by subject area and location. The CD-Rom, sponsored by The Independent and National Express, comes with the Ucas official guide, at pounds 19.95 (plus pounds 3 p&p) but is also available separately for pounds 9.95. More details from Sheed & Ward, 14 Coopers Row, London EC3 2BH (0171-702 9799).

Dutch courage

Last week, I decided to do a little Eurogallavanting. I kicked off with a drive through Belgium and Holland and ended up with a few days at Munster in Westphalia, Germany. I happen to be an alumnus of that medieval town's university many, many years ago. I was supposed to research German linguistics, but recall spending more time researching the good beers of the Pinkus Muller brewery.

I again walked the university's ancient cloisters and spoke with a Herr Pott who deals with "the question of former students". He made it clear at once: "We do not have an alumni club as they do in America.We cannot even afford to send former students our magazine." Pity. Munster University has just signed a commendable agreement with the Catholic University of Nijmegen, just a few miles away in The Netherlands. Students registered for a course at one university may also go and study at the other. Academic and student exchanges and sharing research projects give true meaning to the European Union. At Nijmegen I visited Carmelita Verbeet-Parisius, the young woman in charge of the university's alumni office. She has the entire system under splendid control, sending out a regular magazine to all former students on her detailed database and generally keeping in close touch with them. Perhaps the Munster-Nijmegen partnership, which we must applaud, should be extended to alumni relations.

Hunting convent

While at Nijmegen, much of which was ravaged by the Second World War (it lies on the Waal/Rhine and shoulders Arnhem), I was shown some old parts that had been left unscathed and drove through the woods to a little place called Molenhoek. Here stands a gem of a building, which preserves as fine an example of Jugendstil - the Art Nouveau of the 1890s - as you are likely to find anywhere in Europe. A former convent turned into a hunting lodge, it is now an upmarket hotel-restaurant called the Jachtslot de Mookerheide (hunting lodge of the moors) where a three-course meal costs around pounds 24 a head and the special seven-course gourmet menu for two, inclusive of wine, would bring little change out of pounds 120. The maitre d', a young man named Ge Fluit, kindly showed June, my wife, and me around. Art lovers, even art critics, would drool over the quite superb furniture and furnishings. But what astounded me was the fluency of our guide's English and his knowledge of history, art and architecture. He was just 22 and had been trained to diploma level at the Rooi Panne Hotel School at Tilburg. Could our hotel and catering colleges boast graduates of similar talent?

And finally ...

A new computer has been purchased by the University of Reading to handle finances and other admin. Its name: Agresso. The computer company is based in Norway where the name does not have the same "unfriendly" connotation. Other universities, including Kent, Liverpool and South Bank, also have Agresso and seem able to live with it. But the editor of Bulletin, Reading's newsletter, invited readers to come up with a better name. Rejections include: System for Collecting Reading's Operating and Order GEnerating data (Scrooge) and Reading University INformation Online User System (Ruinous). Watch this space for the acceptable choice.

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