Word of Mouth Forming a clearer vision

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Funny bone

Whoever could have imagined that a blind lad would one day occupy the highest educational seat in the land? David Blunkett, whether you agree or disagree with his policies, must be a truly shining example to all youngsters with some form of handicap. Last week, Blunkett turned up at the launch of a new and exciting book whose foreword he, as Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has penned.

The aptly named Breaking Down Barriers by Jane Owen Hutchinson, Karen Atkinson and Jenny Orpwood (Stanley Thornes, pounds 20) deals with access to further and higher education for visually impaired students. All three authors are with the Royal National Institute for the Blind's excellent physiotherapy resource centre at the University of East London. Although some 195,000 further and higher education students have some form of learning disability, only 7,000 are visually handicapped - out of a total of 4.5 million students. Considering so few are affected, one might expect supposedly intelligent academics to be more sensitive to their needs.

David Blunkett said he wished this practical guide had been available before he went to Sheffield University, so that staff and students could have learned how to be more helpful and less patronising. But even the most sensitive of teachers can't always win. Jane Owen Hutchinson told the story of the physiotherapy lecturer who, knowing it was useless to point to a humerus bone for blind students to "see", took the actual bone and put it into the hands of a blind student. The student's guide dog thought this was a juicy gift and readily grabbed it.

Hatchet job

Following on from the above, I know David Blunkett hated his time at the School for the Blind at Sheffield, but surely his grudge can't extend to all special schools. So what on earth is going on in the London borough of Lambeth? It plans to close not one, but three special schools that have become widely known as centres of excellence and, regardless of the hue and cry of desperate parents, wants to disperse the children to mainstream schools. The doomed schools are Thurlow Park (physical difficulties), Clapham Park (visually-impaired), and Grove House (hearing-impaired).

Thurlow Park decided to go grant-maintained under the Tories. Ah-ha! Not only have Messrs Blair and Blunkett done away with the assisted places scheme but, from April 1, G-M schools will once again become the responsibility of local authorities. How many schools can look forward to a vengeful axe? But I have heard even worse . Grove House is about to be Ofstedded. Why inspect a school already earmarked for closure?

Now you Ssees it

Another merger has been agreed within the University of London. Following the get together of Imperial College and Wye College, which I reported a few weeks ago, it is now the turn of University College London (UCL) and the small but great School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), founded just after the start of the First World War. While there has been a general decline in university applications this year, SSEES has recorded a most encouraging increase in the number of students eager to enter its portals. No wonder there's no plan to change its name or its location. With nearly 400 undergraduates and 200 postgraduates being taught by 70 academics, its international reputation is too good, and demand too high.

Royal blushes

It is good to see that the Royal Family sometimes shares the common folk's concerns for educational standards. Take the Duke of Edinburgh, for instance. During a recent visit to commemorate the 150th anniversary of London Guildhall University, of which HRH happens to be patron (yes, an ex-poly - I bet that surprises some of you), he spoke frankly of his anxieties over the GCSE league tables. "It's discouraging to see something like 13 of the bottom 30 are London boroughs. What worries me is how blooms are going to survive if the roots are not all that healthy."

Greedy Greenwich

Did you know that it could cost you pounds 20, even double, simply to look at the University of Greenwich? No, I bet you didn't and nor did I until I decided to drive to that tourist-saturated borough on a wintry Sunday to see how far the university had progressed with its new campus - part of the magnificent Royal Naval College. It looked good, so I decided to walk along the Thames path to the great Thames Barrier. Just past the ugly Dome, the public path, which once stretched to the Barrier, ended abruptly, erased by the Millennium diggers. Surely an offence. When I returned to my car, parked in a remarkably quiet street far from the madding crowds on that Sunday afternoon, a pounds 20 fine had been slapped to the windscreen - doubled to pounds 40 if not paid within a fortnight. Methinks Greenwich, never the friendliest of boroughs, has become over-greedy. Just because it is home of the Meridian and that wretched Millennium Dome, its councillors believe they can ride roughshod over us all.

And finally...

Schools, colleges and universities will be getting ready for 12 March - Red Nose Day. Last year, more than 60 per cent of the nation's schools took part in this great fundraising event. To help youngsters see where their money is going, education experts from major charities have designed The Best Lesson Plans in the World - Ever. The pack's six plans, providing up to 24 actual lessons with a national curriculum key skills checklist, deal with homelessness, worldwide poverty, disability issues, refugees and children's rights. The plans are suitable for all ability levels across key stages 2 & 3. It's free and teachers should contact Comic Relief on 0171-436 1122 (Fax:0171-436 1541). I chuckled to hear the name of the person in charge of Comic Relief's Press Office: Louise Tickle.

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