A breeze from the outer world

11th May 2001 at 01:00
ON A boat, if you are miles from shore and a bit of gear breaks, there is one golden rule. You don't waste time mourning over the fact that you don't have a spare. You bend your mind to the more subtle question, "What did it do?".

Instead of focusing in horror on the lack of a proper lavatory valve or fuel-filter, you deconstruct the job that it formerly did. You don't say, "Oh, if only we had another length of 5mm copper pipe with a micromesh adaptor nozzle!". You say "What is the job it did?" and then rummage around in your box of oddments and cut up the tongues of people's deck-shoes to make gaskets. And, as often as not, it turns out that some tinfoil, the handle of a shrimping-net and a twisted pair of underpants will get you home. Sometimes, these jury-rigs are so effective you find them still in place years later. So, as we appear to have a schools emergency on our hands, let us dismantle teachers and consider what they do.

What sort of lash-up might keep the educational ship afloat? As good TES readers, we all agree that the long-term solution is for teaching to become a proud and envied profession. However, if high-quality repair to the vessel is not instantly available, and fresh waves of children keep battering it, we clearly must cut up a few shoes and cannibalise some old gadgets.

David Blunkett's current solution is thousands of classroom assistants. Fine. But surely there is something else lying around in the national oddments box, full of potential to help? I was brooding on this the other week when my eye fell on the story that Portsmouth and West Sussex schools are recruiting ex-servicemen and women as "study supervisors".

Everyone had a good giggle, imagining the army drafted into double physics in between shovelling dead sheep and having breast-enhancement surgery. And the National Union of Teachers said in its usual huffy manner that the idea is "misguided".

But I dunno. Deconstruct a teacher, and what do you find? There is a specialist professional, capable of planning lessons and understanding the psychology of learning; a bureaucrat who keeps immaculate records and can understand the weird language talked by exam boards (a bit like being a Parselmouth in Harry Potter, able to talk to snakes and slightly feared for it).

Within the same teacher there is a supervisor of unpredictable youth who can exert authority nd organise a rabble, and a motivator whose manner and enthusiasm persuades the said rabble that it is better to co-operate than to wander off down to the chippie. And then there is a friend and counsellor of children.

Look at the functions, divide them up and consider replacing some of them with a jury-rig, looking different but doing the same job. It already happens where schools have counsellors and classroom assistants, but it could be extended very interestingly. Maybe those schools were barking up the right tree by touting for ex-service personnel. Soldiers, after all, know about chains of command, take orders intelligently, and tend to be optimistic, crunchy, can-do personalities. A few of them could liven up the atmosphere of the average knackered school: the boys in particular might be edified to see tough chaps with broken noses seeming to care about whether they do their history essay, and Falklands veterans taking the register and collecting homework.

Maybe we should go much wider. Let teachers teach, but also command an assortment of high-quality volunteers, seconded for one or two days a week. Maybe it should be routine for a local surveyor to offer six hours with geography sets, under orders from the head of department; for a publisher or journalist to take responsibility for an aspect of the English curriculum, a banker to play classroom assistant to the maths teacher, a practising engineer to join the CDT team, and a bilingual executive to do conversation sessions for the modern languages department.

It would blow a breeze in from the outer world, and, as these professionals would be terrified, enhance the reputation of teachers no end. It would put schools back at the heart of communities.

We volunteers would love it, too. The world is full of people who haven't quite got the bottle to be full-time teachers, but who are energised and delighted at contact with the fizzing qualities of youth (even if we do need the rest of the week to recover). Perhaps there should be a way to let that goodwill penetrate to the heart of education, not just raise funds for computers. Huh, say the teachers. "We'd have to organise them all, more trouble than it's worthI" But if I were a desperate head, I'd try it.

And if there were shy volunteers, with clerical ability, I'd bloody well work out a way to get them to do the paperwork.

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