Rarely do you come across a war that could be described as hilarious, but the Great Emu War of 1932 punches that ticket nicely. The Australian government, faced with hordes of migratory emus tearing up croplands in the West, and in possession of squads of veteran soldiers turned to agriculture, came up with a solution that might have seemed obvious: mobilise this great standing army and equip them with machine guns against the flightless, comical menace. The Great War between man and emu had begun.
Several attempts were made on "the enemy's" position, but the dispersal of the emus into small groups meant that none were successful in slotting more than a handful of birds. War is hell, but in this case it was Hill – Benny Hill.
"But surely Tom," I hear you wonder, "there can't be a link between this ancient, brainless caper and some contemporary educational practice?" There can indeed; I'm an assembly veteran, and can conjure a connection between the most tenuous of artefacts in battlefield conditions.
I'm reminded of our vast, fathomless capacity for folly when I read stories like this, where Kent County Council has recently been pilloried for its decision to spend £150,000 on iPads and laptops for Chaucer School in Canterbury, despite the small problem that the school is closing down and only has 136 pupils. To quote Kent Online:
"The authority says the money was allocated before the closure was on the table and insists it is 'of vital importance' to the remaining few youngsters.
But critics have branded the investment 'strange' in light of the budget crisis which partly caused the school’s collapse in the first place.
Campaign manager for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Andy Silvester, says: 'The idea that once a decision is taken it cannot be undone is ludicrous.'"
Quite. And a deeper wonder is that, in a circumstance of financial lack, anyone thought it a good idea to spend the family cow on the magic beans of tech in the first place, when – as I will happily bore anyone's ar$e off endlessly about – there is precious little evidence that iPad adoption has any discernible effect on the educational outcomes of children whatsoever. It's a contemporary myth that digitalising the classroom adds great scoops of value to the school experience in a measurable way. Which isn't to say they aren't potentially useful, but their adoption has been so brainless in so many circumstances that I would require anyone seeking to spunk the school budget on a suite of tablets to undergo a sanity test first. Or who knows? Maybe even submit a proposal that describes what successful adoption would look like, and what outcomes are actually envisaged. Otherwise it's just speculation, which is fine in education, but a) don't expect anyone else to do it and b) make sure it doesn't cost the family silver.
I am reminded of Dylan Moran's Bernard Black, the misanthropic Irish book seller in Black Books, staring at the kiosk attendant in a cinema. "Excuse me," he says with a confused face. "I just bought a drink and some popcorn. And now I have no money."
And so, back to the emus. The Lewis Automatic Machine Gun is a sturdy piece of ordnance and you'd expect it to be somewhat of a trump card against an opponent that habitually eats car keys. Despite this apparent mismatch, the emu proved to be quite resistant to the hail of death imagined by the architects of shock and CAW! The government had found the right problem, but the wrong solution.
Similarly, the issue of underachieving children is one that needs to be tackled, but maybe instead of spraying a blanket of iPads, however shiny and groovy they are, in their direction, we should be looking for a more nuanced, targeted approach that will really tackle education's emu problem.