WORD OF MOUTH

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The Independent Online
Airs on an A-string

Walking down the main street of Mussidan, as one does when travelling through this pretty part of the Dordogne, I was surprised to find among the grocery stores, bakers, bistros and estate agents, a shop window with a difference. It displayed neither fish nor fowl but education. British education at that. The Dordogne Study Centre is run by John Airs, an affable expat, once head of an English girls' school. Today, he performs a rescue service for youngsters who have pipped their A-levels or university exams. He also prepares adults who sit externally English or French degrees from the University of London. His "shop" is recognised as an examination centre by GCSE boards and universities, and students who failed their end-of- year exams at Napier and Dundee managed to re-sit them at Mussidan this hot August. The University of Luton has also shown an interest. Airs is a true educationist. He seems to like picking up stray dogs, be they canine or human. His students have included one or two expelled by their schools back home and those who were simply bored by the way they were being taught. Airs doesn't mind his centre being called a "crammer" but insists that "education should be fun". Students are immersed into the language and culture from the moment they arrive, and are billeted with local French families who speak little or no English. For lunch Airs takes them to an excellent little restaurant round the corner for a 60 franc menu (including wine) and once a week there are outings to see attractions from cave paintings to vineyards. "We seem to have lost the real aim of education. It should be fun, not a drudge. My students have to work hard, but they enjoy what they do and the boys even find time to join the local rugby and soccer clubs," John Airs says. While I was there, a Frenchman, accompanied by his wife and toddler, walked in off the street. "Will you teach me English? I need to pass an exam before I can be promoted at work." Another candidate for the Airs rescue service.

Choral Champagne:

Amazing what one stumbles across on holidays. There we were, passing through Reims, enjoying a glass or two of what Reims is famous for, when we heard this heavenly choir. The sound came from St Jacques, a gorgeous 12th century church just opposite Marks and Sparks. There, 40 singers, all Brits, were rehearsing for Evensong. All students and graduates, their ages ranged from 25 to 60-plus. I had stumbled upon the Open University Chapel Choir, which had spent the summer hols touring French cathedrals, performing sung masses and other services. Now here they all were, along with Phil Baxter, the Choir's founder, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Phil, an OU summer school music tutor and former fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, who accompanied the singers on the church organ, lives in Canterbury and teaches English to European businessmen and women. As for the OU "oldies", not only were they in great voice but they made better ambassadors for Britain than an entire army from the fuddy-duddy Foreign Office.

Les chefs de France:

France is justifiably proud of its fine cuisine. It is a country where even the simplest of bistros manages to produce a perfect omelette (just try ordering one over here and they tend to range from a mess that runs off the plate to a kind of scrambled pancake; perfect omelettes are rare). There are some 10,000 chefs at hotels and restaurants throughout France but only about one per cent of them become prize-winning grand chefs. At the summit sits Paul Bocuse, at whose Lyon restaurant I was once privileged to dine; below him come such masters as Joel Robuchon of the Jamin in Paris, Jacques Maximin of the Hotel Negresco in Nice and the youthful Jean-Pierre Vigalo of the Apicius in Paris. I am happy to add another name to the list: Daniel Bernard of the Auberge de la Maree on the idyllic Ile de Re where we stayed - totally incognito, I hasten to add! He was voted Laureate of the Ecole Hoteliere de Paris some years ago and as early as 1965 won the Best Young Wine Waiter of France award. He sculpts and designs as a hobby, his staircases entwining the trees of his gardens. But my mouth still waters at the memory of his gourmet lobster and lotte creations.

The skivers:

What I am to recount gives me no pleasure. Some teachers may not have fallen foul of Chris Woodhead but richly deserve his wrath and the sack, for they have disgraced the colleges and universities which foolishly qualified them in the first place. They are the skivers, teachers who play truant regularly. Here are just a few scandalous examples: the teacher who stayed away from school, pretending to be sick, while playing the clown - literally. He had joined a circus and would be under the Big Top still, had it not been for a TV company that filmed the circus for a kiddies' programme. A colleague recognised him, and he was sacked. Then there's the husband-wife team, both off school with "chronic back problems" - until they were spotted with a group of morris dancers at a village fete. When they were disciplined they objected strongly: "We did not accept a penny for morris dancing." Yet they had no qualms about being paid for not teaching their pupils. And how about the teacher who produced one doctor's note after another giving "stress" as the reason for absence. Teachers have the right to be absent on full pay for up to six months. After that, salaries are halved. This particular lady knew the law, so after six months, she returned to work for a day. After that she was off again - and there was no break in her salary. One of several reliable informants for this report told me that this teacher "played the system" for four years! You want more? All right. There are numerous teachers who regularly truant on Fridays or Mondays. Their excuse? Migraine, stomach ache, back ache, you name it. Doctors' notes are not required for absences of up to three days. "Self-certification" suffices. And then there's the language teacher who has been on full sick pay for ages but is never at home when her school phones her there. That's because she is augmenting her salary by moonlighting for a private language school. And when one headteacher suggested putting up a notice in the staff room listing the number of days off accumulated by members of staff, he was warned that it could be construed as "harassment." No further comment is needed - but it's your money and mine that's being plundered. As for the pupils, their loss is infinite.

And finally...

A prospective client walked into a lawyer's office in the United States and asked him about his fees. "I charge $100 for three questions." The visitor was taken aback. "Isn't that a bit steep?" he asked. "Yes, it is," replied the lawyer. "Now, what's your third question?" (Quoted in Wye Week, newsletter of Wye College, London University.)

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