Philip Hensher: What we need is a certificate for toaster use

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The Independent Online

When Bobby McHale, a 15-year-old from Bury, went on a Bury and Rochdale Active Generation summer school, he was hoping to be taught new skills and be given new challenges. He didn't realise that the educational scheme was keeping such a close eye on his achievements. A while after returning, Bobby, a bright student who is expected to get good marks in his GCSEs, got a certificate, issued by an examination board, for one aspect of the scheme.

Bobby received a certificate confirming that he had attained a qualification in catching a bus. His ability to walk to the local bus stop was beyond question. His skills at entering the bus in a calm and safe manner were among the best in the land. If any rude fellow should say "Bobby, you don't even know how to wait until a bus has stopped before you get off", Bobby can from now on say "Yah boo sucks: here's my certificate."

Bobby and his family were surprised by this certificate, since Bobby thought he was catching a bus and not taking an educational module at all. It seemed quite an easy module to pass, but the bar was evidently set quite high. His 13-year old brother, who went to the same summer school didn't get a certificate. "Maybe he wasn't up to it," Bobby commented.

Investigation shows that AQA, a qualifications agency, runs tens of thousands of such "units". You can be trained to get a qualification in such matters as "answering a telephone and passing on a message". "Using a toaster" is one unit; for the more advanced, "making a slice of toast using an electric toaster", making you wonder what exactly the first unit measured. "Using a vending machine", "unfastening shoes", "Using a switch" are matters of educational accomplishment deserving a separate unit each. Some are still more specific: "Making a telephone call about paying an electricity bill" – presumably you need a new unit if it's a gas bill you've just had. Others seem unhelpfully ambitious in scope: "Self Awareness" or "Earning Money".

Clearly, some of these are meant for those in special education or with very low capacities for learning. But the AQA states that the units are suitable for people of any intellectual level – not that they put it like that. And Bobby McHale's experience shows that there is some incentive for educational groups to apply them to people who already know how to sit on a chair. A brief look at the AQA's list on the Unit Award Scheme suggests there is also an incentive for educationalists to think up steadily more rudimentary tasks to be taught, examined and certificated.

What might this incentive be? On the AQA's website, a clue. "One member of staff needs appropriate initial training ... One of those attending the training should be the person who takes on the role of centre co-ordinator ... This initial [in-service training] will be followed up by a visit from an AQA assessor..." And so on. Before you teach a child how to make instant whip (a real unit), you have to be trained, centre co-ordinated and assessed by an assessor. And then you give the kid a certificate.

Well, it keeps a lot of people busy and employed who would otherwise be roaming the streets making nuisances of themselves. But it does make you wonder how we ever managed without a certificate stating that we were qualified to embark upon "Walking In A Group For Pleasure", (Unit 86348) having taken the Introduction Unit. We might not be experts in that important skill just yet: we might not have got to the point of being able to teach Walking In A Group For Pleasure to others less skilled than ourselves. But the good news is that we're getting there.

The dread letters from Dame Muriel

Reading Martin Stannard's life of Dame Muriel Spark is an alarming experience for a writer. Things have certainly changed a great deal in the publishing world since the Prime of Dame Muriel. How her publishers and agents must have dreaded the arrival in their in-tray of a letter from the Dame berating them for not doing enough, and telling them, in choice terms, exactly what she thought of their personal capacities. I don't think a publisher would put up with Dame Muriel's level of vituperation for very long nowadays.

Amazingly, at one point in the early 1960s, her publishers, beaten down by her demands, actually offered to buy her a house. Does this sort of thing still go on? Perhaps publishers buy their novelists houses all the time, and it's just a secret no one has shared with me. How do you persuade them to do it? In more recent times, it's well known that a somewhat slapdash but distinguished composer had built up a million pounds of unpaid taxes over 20 years: his publisher eventually paid it for him. How do you get them to do that? My admiration for Dame Muriel's spirit and vim, always high, went up on hearing Stannard's story; it rose still higher on discovering that she turned them down. A house? Just the one? She could do better out of them than that.

Pass the cream ... and the heartburn tablets

Ping! An e-mail arrives in the electronic in-tray from Gaviscon, the excellent and very effective heartburn remedy. "Great double acts are hard to beat," it trills. Indeed so.

They're on a mission to discover the nation's "favourite double act pudding". Some people say strawberries and cream, some people say ice-cream and chocolate sauce, but a preliminary inquiry suggests apple crumble and custard.

I've seen some bizarre PR campaigns in my time, but this seems particularly odd. Like many people, I've discovered the one thing you need to do to avoid a heartburn attack in the small hours is to lay off puddings altogether. The days when one could merrily follow a late night bowl of chilli con carne with a treacle pudding and cream seem very remote indeed.

I would say that Gaviscon, in mounting a competition to find your favourite way of causing you to wake up at 3am with puke in your mouth, knows which side its bread is buttered. If you don't over-eat or go anywhere near any of those Great Double Act Puddings, you probably wouldn't be in need of Gaviscon's Double Action heartburn remedy. So – I'm sure they would say – dive in.