WORD OF MOUTH

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Blunkett goes the

Full Monty

Last week's annual Association of University Teachers' knees-up was even better than usual. The AUT took over part of the QEII Centre, though not because of the real live QEII's golden wedding. It wanted to show off its new president Penny Holloway, librarian of the University of Ulster, and to mark its first public occasion to represent higher education across the spectrum, having absorbed the Association of University and College Lecturers. David Blunkett joined the merrymaking with a couple of fascinating hints. He would, he said, send David Triesman, AUT general-secretary, to meet students up and down the country and gauge their needs. Then he added: "Above all, we need him [Triesman] in the House of Lords." A peerage for Dave? I'd have though a straight "K" would have sufficed. Then came another nudge-nudge from Mr B. He said a new degree would be launched based on male stripping and involving Socrates. The Full Monty course would open up "new opportunities" in higher education. I bet! Naturally, we all guffawed. "If you think I'm joking, just wait for the White Paper in January," quoth Blunkett. January? I thought it was this month. "I didn't want to overburden the educational press," he said and left, his beautiful bored guide dog at his side.

Scotland out in front

With the Government's pounds 1,000 student levy and the phasing out of grants, the University of Edinburgh is taking swift action to ensure that some students who can't afford the extra cost sign up with them. It is launching 50 first-degree bursaries to help students meet their maintenance costs. By, er, coincidence, each is to the value of pounds 1,000 and will be paid annually to the lucky winners - a total ranging from pounds 3,000 for a student on a three-year degree course, to pounds 5,000 for one on a five-year course. Professor Sir Stewart Sutherland, Edinburgh's principal, has announced two categories of bursary: 25 to ease the way into higher education for students applying from state schools and colleges, and the other 25 to provide extra incentive to high-flyers, regardless of their school. Once again Scotland is showing us Sassenachs how to go about it.

Assisting the varsity place:

Strange how those whom one would expect to help children from poorer home backgrounds have a tendency to drag the carpet of opportunity from under their feet. The assisted places scheme, which helped to pay fees for such youngsters at independent schools, is to be phased out. The 25 independents within the Girls' Public Day School Trust, most of whose pupils make it to university, has launched a scholarship fund for deserving girls. Last week I went to South Hampstead School, to hear the head Jean Scott warn parents that ending the scheme would mean a return to "privilege, elitism and division". I recall when Norman St John-Stevas (Lord St John of Fawsley) introduced assisted places some 16 years ago. I wish the GPDST campaign luck. Perhaps a tenner added to all fees should do the trick without fuss. But I like Jean Scott's money-spinning wheeze - to teach business people French, German, Spanish, you name it, by way of the school's language lab. When? Why, before they rush off to work, of course: from 6.30am to 7.45am, when the school is quiet - and street parking is free.

In league with the tables:

Once again parents are being faced with a proliferation of league tables. Perhaps Which?, the consumers' mag, could produce a league table of league tables. The latest batch of tables simply say "comp" if a school is comprehensive. But many such comps, including religious foundations, select their pupils. The tables also show the percentage of GCSE A-C/A-Gs each school obtained compared with some previous years and the current number of pupils with special needs. No heed is paid to the often phenomenal increase in the number of special needs children.

Now Harvey Goldstein, distinguished professor of statistical methods at the Institute of Education, London University, says that even Ofsted's own research studies show a "poorly understood need to take account both of intake and of the uncertainty surrounding any inferences based upon test scores and examination results."

Writing in Managing Schools Today, Professor Goldstein goes further: "If such interpretations are not challenged, they may distort and degrade the systems they are supposed to support and describe." He believes league tables as they stand (and not only in education) raise an ethical question - freedom of information vs abuse of information. Just as governments withhold certain information that might threaten national security, there's a similar case for withholding certain unbalanced information in league tables. Children, he thinks, should be protected from the publication of misinformation ... Now then, which parent, school, university or local authority is plucky enough to challenge the powers that be?

And finally ...

Academics and students at the University of Wolverhampton got out the red carpet when they heard who was coming to teach Japanese language and culture at their School of Languages and European Studies: none other than Yoko Ono. Did I say none other? Sorry, this Yoko Ono is not John Lennon's widow. She's not even related.

But she says: "I did once meet John Lennon and my namesake in a Tokyo department store." Still, I bet the name comes in useful when booking restaurant tables or theatre tickets ...

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