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Hang Ups

September 9, 1999 is a date worth noting in your five-year diary. It will be the day when parents, politicians and teachers finally acknowledge that there must be a better way of educating children than sending them to school.

As a consequence, by 2029 most school buildings will have been sold off, and children will shudder at the thought of their forebears having had to suffer crowded classrooms, a national curriculum and the debilitating tyranny of bells and timetables. Instead, contented, motivated, and enjoying every moment of it, they will follow a programme of work carefully structured to suit their individual needs and interests. So says John Adcock in his light-hearted but thoughtful fantasy, In Place Of Schools.

The brave new world he describes has come about as a desperate remedy for the mounting chaos created by the tidal wave of educational "reforms" that started in the 1980s. An ageing back-bencher, seeing "a chance to gain career kudos for himself", rashly champions a radical policy of de-schooling for 4 to 13-year-olds and a beleaguered government, acting out of "unadulterated political expediency" pushes through the necessary legislation.

The revolution, which proves an instant success, is only possible because of information technology. But Mr Adcock is not another of these gurus spouting cyberbabble. In fact, he doesn't seem to be in the least bit interested in the technology itself never once in 112 pages does he drool over futuristic hardware. Nor does he ever use the dreaded words "Internet" or "superhighway", although his whole system ultimately depends on children being able to have on-line access to a vast database of suitable resources. Although he argues that this will make schools redundant, he is convinced that it will be the salvation of the teaching profession. Teachers without schools? It's a very beguiling prospect.

In his "novel" it's an extended daydream really teachers have been retrained as personal tutors. Each takes on the responsibility of overseeing the education of 20 children. His heroine, a young tutor who is enjoying "a fascinating and wholly enjoyable career", meets her charges individually or in small groups at home or in a library, gallery, museum, sports centre, concert hall anywhere, in fact, other than in a classroom. She alone is responsible for each child's educational progress, and doesn't have to kowtow to a head of department, headteacher, adviser, examining board, Ofsted inspector or barmy government directive. If the parents aren't satisfied with the education that she provides, they will tell her and, if necessary, find a new tutor, just as they are entitled to look around for a better GP. It means that she can't ever afford to take it easy, but she also appreciates that "the essence of her professional status and freedom" depends on accepting that the buck stops with her.

All this might sound absurdly Utopian but, as Mr Adcock makes clear, it's a genuinely cost-effective way of delivering an educational service. One teacher per 20 pupils isn't extravagant, and massive savings will be made in not having to maintain crumbling school buildings and a burgeoning bureaucracy.

Nor is the idea of a comprehensive on-line database of resources far-fetched. Indeed, Superhighways for Education, the consultative paper recently published by the Department for Education, states that "the content and the design of on-line materials" are "among the key issues" that educationists should be tackling. The document goes on to list how every subject in the curriculum could be supported by the facilities made available on the information superhighway. There's no doubt that publishers, conscious of the fortune to be made, will be falling over themselves to get their wares on-line.

Then, all that will be needed to make Mr Adcock's dream come true is an ambitious back-bencher and a government that, between now and 1999, is prepared to stoop to unadulterated political expediency. Unimaginable.

In Place of Schools, Pounds 5.95, New Education Press, 27 Old Gloucester Street, London WC1N 3XX

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