Class control with Mr T

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Our 23-year-old son tidied his bedroom the other day. This may not seem like an epoch-making event warranting national newspaper coverage (though it is actually), but I mention it because in the skipload of Eighties and Nineties ephemera he threw out was an electronic gizmo called a Mr T In Your Pocket.

If I ever watched an episode of The A-Team, it wasn't memorable. But even I know who Mr T is - the big, black, gold-laced, gruff guy. He holds a special place for me in the annals of the sublimely ridiculous for turning up in character - or in jewellery anyway - at a Californian courthouse in a case involving the sexual abuse of nursery children. The infants who were to testify against their abusers were supposed to feel safe to talk because Mr T was there to protect them.

Such Disneyesque blurring of reality and fantasy, of public service and celebrity self-promotion, has a certain tacky appeal. Is this what inspired Bob Geldof? And Jamie Oliver? Shouldn't there be more of it? For those who find it difficult to raise a deposit at the sperm bank, for instance, might Jordan be persuaded to lend a hand?

I now see that Mr T's services to mankind go way beyond that courthouse. A Mr T In Your Pocket is smaller than a mobile phone (or smaller than they used to be before you had to carry a knitting needle to dial a number). It consists of six buttons and a speaker. Each button, when pressed, emits a different catchphrase in the slightly tinny but unmistakable growl of the eponymous Mr T.

"Don't gimme no back talk, sucka!" is my particular favourite. I find it fits most family situations. Though "Quit your jibba jabba" has enhanced married life no end. And "Don't make me mad, uuuurrrgh!" is invaluable for concluding any conversation.

I'm not entirely sure an electronic Mr T In Your Pocket will make me feel safer walking home in the dark, or get me served in a bar. But I see enormous potential for this technology in the classroom. Never mind Laptops for Teachers, a Mr T In Your Briefcase is what you need.

I'm not suggesting teachers call on the disembodied voice of a Hollywood tough guy to maintain classroom discipline. What these devices need is to be re-programmable so you can record your own voice and stock phrases.

Just think how much mental and physical energy you would save by having the things you say over and over again - a thousand times a day - available at the press of a button. Like, "Darren, sit down and stop talking!" Or, "I won't tell you again!" (followed by whatever it was you weren't going to tell them). As for those lessons designed to drill children for Sats, you'd be able to download them like ringtones.

When your class plays up because Ofsted is in, and you blast them with the "For Pete's sake, shut up!" button at maximum wharp drive, the inspector will have to tick the "uses ICT appropriately within lesson" box rather than the "hopeless at classroom management" one. Sadly though, your phonic phaser won't respond to "Beam me up Scottie".

It should, on the other hand, solve the workload crisis and teacher shortage at a stroke of the button. Just hand yours to the classroom assistant taking over your lessons.

The danger is that the Department for Education and Thrills will wise up to the potential. They only invested billions in teacher websites so they can dish out regular upgrades and re-programme the entire workforce at will.

Government-issue phonic phasers would cut out the middleperson and zap it to pupils directly. And they'll also cut bureaucracy: teachers will become button-pressers instead of pen-pushers.

Of course, ministers change so often you'll have to keep sending the Ms K In Your Pocket back to be reprogrammed as a Mr J, though the robotic tones of the old Ruth Kelly model will always be indispensable in those nursery classes where children have a sleep in the afternoon.

One button of the official version will be reserved for everything Chris Woodhead ever understood about education. And in the interests of school autonomy, Lord Adonis will insist another button is left unprogrammed for academies and self-governing trust schools. When you press that, classes will hear "And now, a message from our sponsor".

Of course, school discipline problems will only be fully solved if the Tories get back in. Pupils won't be listening to that nice Mr Cameron, though. Then you will all be carrying a Mrs T in your pocket.

Bob Doe is a former TES editor

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