Gary Day

January 7, 2005

Training will still be the order of the day in 2005, says a man who has been trained to speak pap and say 'no' to fun

Well, it's all over. Christmas, new year and the career of David Blunkett, a Briton brought low by an American. Sums up our recent history really.

Still, it doesn't do to dwell on the past. As the Seventies pop group Slade annually remind us, we must "look to the future now, it's only just begun".

Even more so now that Charles Clarke has left the Department for Education. Cartoonists are cruel to Mr Clarke. They draw him with big ears.

I don't know why. His ears were the last thing he used.

But as we say goodbye to Mr Clarke we say hello to Ruth Kelly. It's about time we had a woman in education again. Remember Estelle Morris? And Margaret, oh, what's her name? You know, the one who complained about Mickey Mouse courses.

Of course, a change of personnel does not mean a change of policy. The emphasis on training will continue because, unlike education, it enables us to carry out our duties more efficiently.

Speaking of which, we had a very useful session on good practice at parties. It began, as these things do, with us being urged to share our experiences of the subject in hand, in this case those little catastrophes without which no social occasion is complete: failed chat-up lines; being bitten by the host's dog; getting stuck in the toilet; and, in my own case, a John Travolta impression that I don't want to talk about, OK?

The tutor then showed us a clip of some over-forties having fun and asked us how we could stop them. I obviously hadn't heard him correctly, so he repeated the question. "How could the resource units we had just seen chatting and laughing and drinking improve their performance in order to make a more effective contribution to the goal of quality enhancement of social interaction?"

The correct answer was not, as one young part-time lecturer suggested, to play Pink's Get the Party Started . The song was not appropriate for that age group. They would have a seizure if they tried to dance to it, and would be shocked to learn that the line "I can go for miles if you know what I mean" did not refer to a walking holiday in the Lake District. No, the correct answer was to enrol on this course.

Then the afternoon really got going. We acquired the skill of holding a plate in one hand and a glass in the other and soon progressed to being able to access the one without dropping the other. No more bills for dirty carpets from irate hostesses.

The more advanced part of the course consisted of exercises in speaking and listening so that we could demonstrate excellence in conversation by engaging in verbal exchanges with others on an appropriate range of topics.

These had to be approved beforehand by the committee for the promotion of relevant discussion.

Life is short. There isn't time to wonder why "we are exactly halfway in scale between an atom and a star" when we have to meet the requirements of the university's strategic plan. But being so busy means that we are not always as sensitive as we might be to the sensibilities of others, and this is especially true of those who teach literature. I once upset a colleague by saying that elves existed only in fairy stories. To which his response was: "Yeah, well, if that's the case, then who helps Father Christmas make all the toys?" I hadn't thought of that.

"We must," our tutor announced, "avoid offending those who are different from us. After all they can't help it." He also said that, come the new year, we should not join in the singing of Auld Lang Syne .

"Won't that upset the Scots?" someone asked.

"Yes," he said, "but it doesn't matter. What's more important is that the song fails to promote the sort of attitudes necessary for success in today's world. It is a perfect example of how tradition is a bar to progress. The way forward isn't by renewing old acquaintance, it's by developing new partnerships."

The session ended with the setting-up of a working group on widening participation that included a quota for gate-crashers.

The course convinced me that whatever departments universities have to close in the next few months it should on no account be the staff development unit. We all benefited enormously from the session and said so on the feedback form. I have been empowered to have non-contentious conversations and to say "no" to fun.

Thanks to having learnt the proper procedures for enjoying myself, I feel refreshed and ready for the challenges ahead. As long as it's not a job on The Spectator . Life on that magazine seems altogether too eventful for someone whose new year motto is "born to be mild".

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