Parliament & Politics: The Sketch - Pilot schemes scramble to attack yawns at four o'clock

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The Independent Online
GETTING THROUGH education and employment questions is a bit like tackling an arduous ice-climb. You need artificial aids if you are not to lose your grip on the almost frictionless surface and slither, in one long accelerating glissade, until you crunch fatally into business questions at the bottom. I had a couple of nasty falls yesterday, and found myself suddenly brought up short by the safety rope, wondering where I was. But in the end, with the help of the crampons of fantasy and the trusty ice- axe of idle speculation, I made it.

I was helped through the first stretch by pilots. The Department for Education currently has more of these than Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and the survival rate doesn't seem to be much better. It's easy to imagine Wing Cdr Blunkett striding into the Nissen hut where junior ministers lounge in wicker chairs sipping Camp coffee and waiting for a scramble to intercept Tory bandits. "Morris," he barks, "what we need at this stage of the war is a futile gesture. Take a numeracy initiative out over Gateshead. And Morris? Don't come back."

The latest pilot to join the squadron - still wet behind the ears - has been assigned to test-fly masterclasses to allow "able, gifted and talented" pupils to reach their full potential. Who knows, if the pilot survives long enough to be promoted to the giddy seniority of a "rolled out scheme", some of today's brighter children may even end up on a parliamentary front bench where, like the "able, gifted and talented" David Willetts, they can slouch like remedial class refuseniks as teacher grinds on.

To be fair, though, Mr Blunkett is more like the class joker than pedagogue, always happy to get a laugh even if it is at his colleague's expense. After Damien Green had cited the somewhat embarrassing statistics for New Deal employment in several government ministries (none in several and only one in the Home Office) he pointed out that we are nearing the end of the school term. His department's report, he suggested, would read: "Doing extraordinarily well, but some class mates could do better."

I lost my grip again after that, only arresting a frightening tumble when Gisela Stuart rose to ask what was being done to encourage parents to read to their young children. Here was a handhold, even if the thought of Gisela Stuart reading a bedtime story was a touch unnerving - she would probably tuck you up tightly and then unroll a copy of Hansard. Ms Stuart thought a pilot was the answer here too - she had recently seen one in action in Birmingham, air-dropping library leaflets on young mothers, and now believed the target area should be expanded. This seemed a little fanciful to me. What the country is clearly crying out for is a bedtime story tax credit, an incentive that would also allow the Department for Education to improve its New Deal recruitment record by hiring an army of young invigilators, accorded full powers to go upstairs and downstairs and into my lady's chamber.

Easily the finest distraction of the session, however, came towards the end, after a splenetic intervention from Andrew Robathan, in which he pointed out that Margaret Hodge's fingerprints had been found all over the rubble of Islington's schools and questioned the propriety of giving her an education portfolio. Estelle Morris, in a sublime new twist on the old trick of blaming the Tories' past record, took the moral high ground. Such problems, she said, were the result of "a failure to support schools over a very long period of time, and his government did nothing to put that right". In other words the Tories had let Mrs Hodge get away with murder and it was too late for them to start screaming now.