The Sketch: Professors of plumbing are a very good thing, to a certain degree

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The Independent Online

"I don't accept it is a mess," some young hound on the government front bench said. What he would accept is that "there are many, many challenges ahead of us". In other words it's a mess. You don't need a university education to deduce that.

The House was applying its collective intelligence to plumbers and the need for plumbers and the need to increase their self-esteem. It's not a social problem I've observed myself. We need more plumbers, everyone agrees, but apparently we want them to go to university as well, so that they can enjoy graduate status. That's a good idea. Then they can make us feel intellectually inferior as well as financially and technologically inferior.

An anonymous Tory asked the anonymous government hound why the plumbing apprenticeships were doing so badly. Take-up was down, drop-outs were up and two-thirds of something lacked four-fifths of something else. The frontbench answer was a model of its kind. They were very much on target to meet their target (perhaps they had halved their target, he didn't say). There had been enormous improvements. The drop-out rate was down to 52 per cent (sic). "Let's build on success not denigrate achievement!" he finished with a flourish.

When one considers how the state production of illiterate, knife-wielding, drug-dealing, Ritalin-sedated, 15-stone 12-year-olds has increased so spectacularly, it's hard to decide whether denigrating achievement is more difficult than building on success.

Bob Russell asked how many classrooms had been built or demolished since 1997. Stephen Twigg, the Schools minister, said he didn't know; that the department didn't know, that nobody knew, and that this had surprised him. Why, though? He didn't say.

Tony McWalter asked the stupidest question of the session as he lamented the catastrophic decline in A-level maths. The perception, he observed, is that maths is much more difficult than other subjects, and he wanted Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, to rectify that. Mr Clarke accepted the point (Resign!). But the fact is that maths is more difficult than other subjects: it's the one that the state has dumbed down least. This vile divisive elitism must be crushed!

Tim Yeo asked the question he always asks when he hasn't got a question to ask. Tuition fees left universities with less money than before tuition fees, he said. Top-up fees were going to result in yet another reduction in university income. Do we believe that? It is such a perverse outcome I am keen to believe it. If only Mr Yeo would give us the evidence.

Mr Clarke declared wearily that top-ups would contribute £1bn extra to university funding, and in the numbing pause that always follows Mr Clarke, suddenly the folly of the top-up policy became clear. An extra £1bn is a fifth of 1 per cent of government spending. Was there ever such a row for so little result? What was it all for? It simply can't be for the reasons Tony Blair has told us. Nobody with a tertiary education would do something so stupid.