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A brush with a virtually clean sweep

There are exciting developments afoot in the inspection world. According to a thick yellow pamphlet from the Office for Standards in Education about the inspection of teacher training, the new buzzword is "sweep". Apparently inspectors will brush rapidly through the nation's teacher-training courses doing "sweep" inspections.

I think such speedy instant audits used to be called "dipsticks"(the inspections, not the inspectors). In my innocence I always assumed that the word "sweep" referred to the harmless act of cleaning up with a brush, but it obviously confirms the fact that inspection nowadays is becoming as daft as one. A PhD could be written on the industrial and commercial metaphors in education that Government agencies use in their papers.

As we deliver the curriculum in a cost-effective way to children (or emergent learning receptacles as I prefer to call them), inspectors sweep the nation, doing dipsticks, which involve calibrating teachers' performance indicators against national norms.

In this anachronistic 19th-century world of humming conveyor belts, oily machines manufacture a mass of identical commodities for a teeming peasantry. It is amazing, at the end of the production line on a Friday afternoon, that teachers still have enough oil left on their dipsticks to teach Year 3 Turbo or Year 9 Sump.

Sweep inspections are going to be the order of the day for teacher training, it says in the latest OFSTED missive. This news has left the nation agog, with just one burning question. Sweep inspections are all very well, but will Sooty be coming too? After all, Sweep without Sooty would be like Laurel without Hardy. If I were Sweep I would make it clear to OFSTED - no Sooty, no Sweep. ln this world of high comedy, it is only right that teacher-as-machine should be vetted by inspector-as-puppet.

Even more startling is the infotech nightmare of the future. As the 21st century dawns and the information superhighway unrolls, some zealots are planning the next wheeze - "virtual" inspections. Just as you can put on a special helmet and sample "virtual reality", a simulated three-dimensional computerised world in which you can zap space creatures, so too inspectors would not need to visit the real world of education.

Virtual reality offers numerous possibilities. Images are projected on to a screen inside the helmet, so it is already being used to train surgeons. There was even a virtual wedding in California, which may well end one day in a virtual divorce. In future, inspectors would do virtual inspections by simply calling up an institution's database on the Internet. They could then read the relevant details of courses, staff qualifications, examination results and questionnaire responses on their monitors, before you had time to say: "Get your thieving hands off our database, you virtual bastards."

Yet there is nothing very futur-istic about the virtual reality model of inspection. The assumptions and values are the very same as the l9th-century sweatshop model, only dressed up in 21st-century artefacts. Children are cans of beans, teachers are operatives. The principal aim is to maximise beans output. So take off the overalls, wipe off the oil stains. Put on the white coat and sit at the keyboard and screen. Clinical.

However, we mustn't be spoilsports, so let's get excited at this virtual caper. Just think of the possibilities, once it is accepted that education can be evaluated without actually soiling your hands on a visit. Nobody ever need leave their front room. Charts, figures and tables could whizz down the fibre optic cables at the speed of light. In case these raw numbers are thought to be too crude, closed-circuit television could be used to show Mr Ramsbottom trying to teach music to 9 Sump with five pupils astride his chest. Mrs Hardcastle, ostensibly on sick leave with a bout of flu, could be viewed supervising the furniture van unloading her new carpet.

Ultimately, of course, the whole of education could go virtual. Teachers would fax their lesson notes to the school. Pupils could stay at home and log in. The virtual secretary would deal with awkward virtual parents by unplugging their virtual reality helmets. The virtual school nurse would only have to stick her dipstick into the computer system to make sure it was running, and insert the software equivalent of an aspirin if it wasn't. The virtual caretaker wouldn't even have to come in to clean up the virtual sick. We have ministers who are holograms, so why not go the whole hog?

To help Mr Dipstick, the lay inspector, the visual images could all be shown in simple cartoon form, with subtitles for the slower learner. Mr Dipstick would make himself comfortable in his bath chair, open a box of dark chocolates, put on his virtual reality helmet, and watch Tom (the deputy head) chase Jerry (the disorganised teacher) down the corridor trying to get his end-of-term teacher assessments off him. Tom and Jerry would crash into Spike (the head), who would bark like mad (well, many heads are barking nowadays) and chase them both in the opposite direction. I told you virtual reality could be amazingly realistic.

At the end of the process, Spike the head would step on to a speak-your-weight machine, arms laden with test scores, parent opinion questionnaires and truancy figures. A distant, cracked voice would pronounce: "Below the national average - you have virtually failed - the virtual hit squad arrives next Thursday. " A few days later Sooty and Sweep would arrive wearing a couple of virtual reality helmets, ready to run the school. It could all happen. We have the technology. And some idiots have the will.

"Now stop being silly, Sweep," as Harry Corbett used to say.

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