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Cutting edges can be dangerous

I get to some wonderful schools. I come away wishing that the critics could see the quality of what's happening out there. Just occasionally, though, you're given cause to reflect that although it's good to be at the cutting edge, it can be wise to let someone else find the snags. I'm reminded of something racing driver Stirling Moss once said. People wondered after a race why Moss had spent a lot of time behind Masten Gregory, an able and occasionally over-eager driver, but not in Stirling's class. Moss smiled.

"It was slippery," he said. "So I thought, 'let old Masten find the oil.'"

(Masten did have more accidents than Stirling, and had a peculiar habit of jumping out of the car just before it crashed, twice being seriously injured doing it. He eventually retired, became a diamond merchant and died peacefully in his bed. Sir Stirling, of course, is still fast and safe at 75.) Nothing demonstrates the wisdom of caution more than the installation of computer software to help with school management. I visited a school once in which one of the coffee mugs in the staffroom belonged to a technician from the firm supplying the computerised registration system. "He's here so often he's included in the coffee club," commented the deputy head.

The school, I discovered, had decided to move from traditional paper attendance registers to a system using small portable computers in the classroom - teacher called up the register on to the screen, made the necessary changes, based on who was absent, and pressed a key to send the data back down to the school office.

Such systems are very common now. This school, though, was something of a pioneer, and as such, unsurprisingly, it was finding the snags, the oil on the track. It wasn't so much that there were problems with the software, but that the management team had made a calculated decision to make the change quickly across the whole school. On the first day of term in September every single form tutor was faced with the electronic gadget, having had a brief introduction before the holiday.

Well, you can guess the rest. Teachers had forgotten details about the system. Few knew how to work their way out of problems. And remember that their button punching and muttered cursing was taking place while they were trying to look after comprehensive-school tutor groups.

As a result, a senior deputy head became a full-time registration system trouble shooter, and a technical whizz from the supplier took up semi-permanent residence. And, crucially, the staff took against it all. In the end they just didn't want to know about the advantages. They just wanted their big, friendly paper registers back.

You can argue that the problem lay in the speed of innovation. There's more to it than that, though. Had everyone been convinced that this was the right way to go, and that it would quickly change their lives for the better, they'd have plunged cheerfully in amid a welter of black humour and improvised tricks. How else has the electronic whiteboard - so obviously the teacher's friend - become almost a universal classroom tool in a very short time? No, it was more than that. The fundamental error was to forget that this change, although imposed on everyone, seemed intended mainly to benefit management and administration.

The primary purpose of electronic registration is to make it easier - much, much easier - for management to handle and analyse the school's attendance data. There are benefits for teachers, but they're not so obvious, and they emerge more slowly. If you're not careful, then, as in the case I've described, people at the sharp end start with nothing but extra work and the loss of familiar routines - yet more problems dumped from above.

The good news is that no one would do it like that now. Schools have had to learn how to innovate. They know now to go slowly, to pilot new ideas with willing volunteers across limited cohorts, and to keep in touch with other schools, especially those finding the oil on the track.

Just a thought to cheer you, though, if you're an eager pioneer. Masten Gregory was a favourite of David Letterman, the US talk show host. Once, having described him, Letterman summed up why he envied him, ``Well, there you go. That's the complete picture, isn't it? He was a daredevil, living in Paris and a ladies' man.'' On balance, once upon a time, I'd have traded a bit of oil on the track for that.

Gerald Haigh is a former headteacher who writes extensively about education.

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