A taste of terrible things to come

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
It is desperation time again. Despite the fact that some schools are currently laying off teachers, we are heading for the most enormous teacher shortages in the next few years. Look at the evidence. More and more children are coming into school each year, about 800,000 newcomers, compared with 650,000 to 700,000 in the age groups that are just leaving schools. Three-quarters of the current teaching force are quitting early, including 6,000 a year because of ill health, a figure that has trebled since the 1980s.

Applications to teach shortage subjects like maths and science are down by a quarter to a third compared with last year. When the economy picks up there will be even fewer applicants for training, and many disaffected teachers in their 20s and 30s will seek jobs elsewhere. So the Teacher Training Agency, a quango that is rather better at handling in service training and recruitment than it is at dealing with initial teacher training (where the word "useless" would be a kindness), is about to fling Pounds 1,600,000 at the problem.

A central feature of the proposed programme is a series of one-week "taster courses" for people who might be interested in becoming teachers. Taster courses are a good idea. They may not be perfect, but they can give prospective applicants a few more clues than are found in glossy brochures about what the job entails.

Whenever I see the phrase "taster course", however, I keep thinking of my driving test. As 18-year-olds do, two friends of mine dreamed up what they thought was a hysterical wheeze, threatening to follow me round on my test run, fouling things up - braking sharply in front of me, shooting out of side roads, sounding their horn in annoyance, blocking the road when I tried a three-point turn. In the end they never did it, but I trembled all the way through, in case they did.

I keep seeing in my mind some hapless potential applicant on a taster course where the staff in the school do the same thing. As soon as the poor beggar arrives in a classroom one of the pupils is sick, right on cue. Another teacher, posing as the caretaker, enters, clutching a document purporting to be the agreement with the privatised school cleaning company, arguing that clearing up sick is not included.

At break time the deputy head, wearing a voluminous pair of incontinence pants, rushes into the staffroom clutching a letter, pretending the school has just heard of an impending inspection from the Office for Standards in Education, whereupon the head fakes a nervous breakdown (or has a real one, depending on the acting skills of the deputy). Then the village idiot, who is probably signed up as a lay inspector anyway, comes in posing as Chris Woodhead to tell the staff they will get grade 7, as they are all incompetent. A specially arranged school lunch of boiled cabbage and semolina follows. The taster week terminates after the first half day as the applicant flees down the drive to look for a more secure job with a bomb disposal unit.

There are certain aspects of teaching which one can easily taste, like the boiled cabbage, and others with cannot be so instantly sampled. Teaching is for stayers, not sprinters, so the day-to-day reality of the job cannot always be demonstrated to order. Who knows when a pupil will ask a mind-blowing question, or whether an angry parent will burst into the school? More to the point, will the "taster" manage to get a flavour of the whole job, including preparation, planning, marking, meetings, the odd quarrel, the shared laughs, the "characters" on the staff, the talks after class with children, the routine and the exciting?

Perhaps the way to inform newcomers about some of these less readily visible aspects is to develop the sort of pretentious language of tasting that wine and food buffs use, to persuade them that only the most cultivated can appreciate the finer points of the job.

Marking books A deep and satisfying activity which can sometimes occupy many happy hours, at the end of which the suffusion of crenellated fingertips and leaking Biro is indescribably sensuous and tactile.

Photocopying Modern reprographics are no match for time-honoured traditional methods, which allow teachers to savour the luxurious aroma of Banda fluid and Roneo stencils, transporting many away from the humdrum reality of classroom life into a carefree, consciousness-altering, transcendental world.

Official reports Pungently permeated with profound oriental mysteries, sometimes fruity, sometimes nutty, these rapturous treatises delight the intellect, with their rich vocabulary. Savour this veritable cornucopia of ineffable phraseology - "Performance criteria, range statements and underpinning knowledgeunderstanding", "end of key stage descriptions", "flangified splindongerous breeblebats" - to name but a few.

Once the language of tasting has been established, then the obvious next step is to have an equivalent of the good food guides to help potential applicants find the right establishment to do their actual sampling.

Lower Swineshire College The peeling splendour of this school and community college has to be sampled at first hand to be fully appreciated. So many of our tasters have described this as "typical", that it has been given the top Teacher Training Agency award of three spittoons for ambience. The head of science has won the Swineshire Staff Cynic of the Year award twice and will be scoffing for Britain in the forthcoming Eurovision Sneering Contest. Finish off your week's taster course with Friday afternoon's "Duties of the Week" session, when the deputy head gives a live demonstration of how to dump all next week's unwanted duties on the newly qualified teachers.

On the other hand, with Pounds 1,600,000 to spend the Teacher Training Agency could give every teacher in the land a free tickling stick. The sight of smiling teachers would do more to recruit the next generation than a hundred other gimmicks.

Personal Column (for Friday May 3rd 1996) Professor Ted Wragg Exeter University

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