Notebook: The sticky end of the lollipop

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The election. The volcano. You won't be reading about them here (is that a small cheer, I hear?) but these disparate news events meet in unhappy circumstances to affect what is arguably more important than either of the above: education.

The coincidental conflation of political and ecological climate has caused division, absence and disruption and, as ever, the sticky end of the lollipop is being handled by our children. Schools are facing chaos and closure as teachers away for their Easter break are unable to return. As I write, parents are receiving word that long-planned progress review days are being postponed; neither my son nor I are happy that the meeting to finalise his GCSE choices is in the balance; we just want it over and done with and to go back to learning.

Politically, the main parties might be sensing an ill wind from the National Association of Headteachers, which has just voted to boycott next month's Sats exams for year sixes. This is clearly their method of flexing their muscle in the run-up to the election, because they are faced with a new government imposing a new National Curriculum, which will lead to years of adjustment, and that's before anyone can tell whether it is working.

No wonder senior educators are digging in their heels, but it might mean anger in the staff room that months of preparation will be for nought – and the kids will be utterly confused by it all. Nevertheless, the thought of being able to force greater flexibility from the incoming leaders is worth it – that and the threat of 10 per cent public sector job cuts.

Schools are like active volcanos at the best of times: stressed pupils, ill-equipped teachers and anxious parents. Add in behind-the-scenes interference from councils and academy managers, and the private sector sniffing around. Then come the grand gestures and shakily constructed plans from politicians on the stump. For teachers not stranded abroad, the next few days and weeks are going to be a test in themselves but I say keep the Sats-paper envelopes sealed. The more that can be done to move away from box-ticking and towards inclusive, broad, personally judged teaching, the better.

Lose weight the clothes-size way!

Do you weigh yourself in stones or kilos? A personal trainer of my acquaintance suggests the latter, as the numbers are less loaded with meaning. That depression-lifting snippet comes at no cost to you, dear reader.

Another trick aimed at easing our troubled minds, in connection to our expanding bodies, is "vanity sizing". Marks and Spencer have just admitted to "tweaking" their measurements to make their clothes larger, while maintaining the same size label, and Gap and John Lewis are, apparently, increasingly generous. So if you can fit into a size 10, while suspecting you were heading for a 14, I'm sorry to be the one breaking it to you that no, you haven't lost weight, you've gained fabric.

The tyranny of the dress size is, frankly, bonkers. There's no parity between Italian and French numbering, and designers have always cut their clothes more on the slender size than their high-street counterparts. If we were smart, we'd buy what fits and snip out the label as soon as we get home. (I'm assuming no one's got the staff to stitch a little "Size 8" label into their capacious dresses, as one late legendary society lady used to.) What we really need is an industry-wide agreement to swap the numbers for ones with, yes, less meaning. Or better still, what about A, B, C, D?

I love M&S for having one of the most comprehensive sizing ranges on the market, and for having Dannii Minogue as one of its spokesmodels. OK, she's no pear-shaped Ms Average UK, but she's a darned sight nearer than Cheryl Cole. Couldn't Sir Stuart Rose, influential chief executive of the retail behemoth, start the labelling revolution as his legacy before he leaves in June?

All aboard Carol Ann's flight of fancy

When Thought for the Day comes along on the Today programme, it's my Pavlovian response to get into the shower – I'm irrationally irked by the homilies and platitudes. I was halfway back into the bathroom yesterday morning when I thought I heard yet more sanctimonious guff, but it turned out to be Carol Ann Duffy's poem about the volcanic dust, and I'm so glad I tuned in, rather than turning off.

"Silver Lining" was beautiful – a whimsical but strangely potent little thing that said more about the Icelandic eruption and its effect on us than hours of commentary on rolling news. "Selfish to sit in this garden, listening to the past/(a gentleman bee wooing its flower, a lawnmower)/When the grounded planes mean ruined plans..."

What a smart decision it was to award Ms Duffy the position of Poet Laureate. She has shown herself to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking, with little of the grandiosity of her predecessor, Andrew Motion. I wondered whether we needed such an outlandishly old-fashioned thing as a national poet at all when the post last became vacant, but I am so happy to be proved wrong.

Of course, marooned travellers would rather have heard "please proceed to gate 34..." than yet more commentary on the saga, and many have harrumphed online about the needlessness of a poem, but I think they're missing the point. Yes it would be terrific for someone to fix this mess, but in the meantime, when there's little to report, wouldn't we rather have poetry than the Twitter rants of grumpy teenagers sitting in airports or "citizen journalism" about missing cousin Derek's stag do?