As the School for Railway Children breaks up for the summer holidays after a turbulent year, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR turns headmaster to give his end-of-term report on the performance of its classes and pupils – and reveals there will be few prizes given at this year’s speech day.
It has been a bad year for all the classes and pupils at the School for Railway Children, but some have fared worse than others.
Strategic Rail Authority class: Oh dear, oh dear. The year started very promisingly for the SRA pupils. There seemed to be money available for all kinds of improvements. The head boy, Alastair, appeared to have a glittering career ahead of him, and the refranchising programme was going to be a very exciting initiative. But then it all seemed to go wrong.
The Hatfield crash was partly to blame but much of the responsibility must lie with Alastair, who has managed to antagonise virtually all the pupils in the other classes through a mixture of not listening to experienced people, an inability to keep his mouth shut and a lack of clarity about his thinking.
Alastair has made fundamental mistakes. Rather than trying to define where he and the whole class were going, he asked everybody for their ideas and then realised that his colleagues in Government class could not afford to pay for them. Not only did he fail to come up with a strategy, the whole refranchising programme became enmeshed in difficulties because it was over-ambitious by seeking to have 20-year deals which were disliked in Government class.
The outlook for SRA class is poor. Alastair has been expelled and there is much dithering over what sort of person should replace him – a railway insider or someone from outside. There is even talk of having a deputy head boy to help the new head boy.
Mike Grant, the prefect, has also had a bad year. He too has appeared muddled in his thinking and has been unable to make quick decisions, which was the purpose of his job. Without Alastair to protect him, he is very likely to fall prey to bullying from the other classes and he too may be expelled soon.
A word of praise for one star pupil. In a school dominated by men, Julia Clarke, the pupil in charge of freight, has had a very good year. She produced a widely-praised strategy that was both realistic and visionary. But why could her fellow pupils not match her achievement?
Rail Regulator class: Tom Winsor, the head boy in this very well-disciplined class, is a serious-minded fellow who has earned the moniker ‘two brains Tom’ among some of his jealous colleagues from other classes. He so dominates this class that it is difficult to remember any other participants in the lessons which Winsor, in fact, has taken to giving. They have been likened to sermons and generally consist of admonishing his colleagues in Railtrack class and warning them to ‘up their game’ and ‘deliver a better railway’ or face severe punishment.
Indeed, Winsor is free with the lash both orally and financially, and has sought to confiscate other pupils’ pocket money. He has also warned other pupils not to bring out their begging bowls but, oddly enough, has lavished large amounts of money on the West Coast project. Winsor has also been accused of bullying Railtrack class which has been under particular pressure recently due to changes in personnel and, of course, the Hatfield accident, but when called to account, he has argued that this was the reason he was sent to the National Railway School.
Winsor is, however, a sensitive boy and does not take criticism well. He hates references to having ‘his tummy tickled’ by Railtrack which have been made by journalists but he has worked hard at developing his sense of humour and is now, at least, able to laugh about it. Sometimes. He must learn to toughen up. While he is not being expelled, he is thought to be under probation and it is no coincidence that his scheduled time at the school ends on the same date as that of the replacement for Alastair in SRA class.
Railtrack class: This has been the worst performing class by some distance. Everything that could have gone wrong during the year seems to have done so. The Hatfield crash, which was caused by a group of junior pupils in Railtrack and Balfour Beatty classes, was the worst event during the year, but there has also been a total failure by almost all pupils in the economics and management classes.
The results in Government relations lessons have also been very poor. A terrible blunder by Steve Marshall, the prefect, who decided to pay dividends to shareholders despite £534m losses, meant that all the pupils in Government and SRA classes have been hostile to Railtrack children. This has led to a number of fights and much rudeness on both sides, which is to be deprecated. Marshall showed his inexperience in this respect but is thought to have learnt from his mistakes. Relations with the Rail Regulator class have somewhat improved recently but those with SRA class have deteriorated.
There has been a frequent change in personnel due to expulsions. The expulsions were undoubtedly all well-merited with possibly one exception. Gerald Corbett, after a poor start in the school, was behaving very well and had begun to master the curriculum. However, a conspiracy by other pupils of Railtrack class, led by Philip Beck, the head boy, who told tales behind his back to his fellow school council members, resulted in Corbett being shown the door. Beck, too, who had proved a thoroughly inadequate and unversed pupil, was eventually forced to go, along with two of his fellow school councillors, Christopher Jonas and Jennie Page, neither of whom had distinguished themselves on the committee.
The list of other departures among the pupils is also, unfortunately lengthy. Another prefect, Simon Murray, who was the boy responsible for major projects, was also kicked out because of persistent failure in finance classes. He also seemed unable to master even basic economics. Jonson Cox, who only joined the school in September, was also expelled because his relations with the junior pupils were very poor and he was blamed for much of the chaos after the Hatfield accident. He showed no initiative and his performance overall was very bad, particularly, again, in economics. It was later discovered that he had proved equally troublesome in his previous school, Yorkshire Water.
Railtrack class remains the most badly behaved of the whole school and it is very difficult to be positive because even after all these changes, things do not seem to have improved. There are still far too many pupils without the right qualifications to be in this class, let alone in the school. Outside the school, there is still considerable disquiet about the behaviour of the whole Railtrack class. The weakness in economics, finance and accountancy is very serious and difficult to remedy.
However, the new head boy, John Robinson, is showing signs of original thinking and of fostering good relations with pupils from Government class.
Train operators class: This is the most varied class in the school with a few good results but also some very poor ones. Richard Branson, although a bit of a goodygoody and not particularly articulate in class, is one of the few visionary pupils in the school and, aided by his acolytes Chris Green and Will Whitehorn, has brought hopes of great things to come thanks to his obsession with new train sets. He must, however, resist the temptation to cavort with the girl pupils and to spend so much time arranging rather tacky but expensive events when showing off his new equipment.
Branson shines out in the class because, frankly, many of the group are a rather grey bunch and much of their energy has been dissipated because of concentrating on refranchising classes which, as it turns out, have now largely been cancelled or curtailed. Richard Brown, seconded to the school by National Express, has earned extra marks for innovative thinking in trying to sort out the railway crisis. A French pupil, Olivier Brousse from Connex, has shown signs of learning from the failures of the past.
For the most part, however, this group have been happy to keep their heads down. Their lack of economics expertise has been masked by the fact that Railtrack class has performed so badly that it was forced to pay compensation to make up for the shortcoming of the train operator pupils, and this has helped them get through this terrible year.
Government class: This year has been characterised by the expulsion of all former ministerial pupils, which has meant there has been a lack of continuity that has severely damaged performance in the class. It was a bad year for this class. The former head pupil, Prescott, a rather muddle-headed and obstreperous student, was very disaffected towards the end of his time in the school and spent much of his energy criticising pupils from other classes, which really did not help the overall situation in the school.
His replacement, Stephen Byers, has shown little signs of independence so far, but is understood to be working hard behind the scenes to devise a solution and has been made aware of the extent of the crisis in the school. He is not helped by the fact that the Department children have failed to understand just how bad things are and are wont to argue that this class should muddle through rather than try anything different.
Prospects: It is difficult to be optimistic about the coming year. However, there are likely to be radical changes in Railtrack class and, with the appointment of a new head boy at the SRA, it is hoped that progress can be made. But, frankly, a troubled time lies ahead which is a great concern because the school must attract a range of good new pupils in order to prosper, and that is unlikely to happen in the current climate.