"Ah, thank goodness for that. I'm Tim Tickbox, head of astrology at Swinesville school for the oppressed. Your PGCE student, Elspeth Scattergood, has applied for a job here, so do you think you could send me a reference for her?"
"Yes, of course, when do you . ."
"Could you email it to me now - only we're interviewing tomorrow morning.
I'll email you the checklist".
What on earth is going on? This conversation is typical of the one that I and many others who act as referees have had this year. Appointing a new teacher is one of the most important events in the school calendar, but there are some features of current practice that are chilling.
Of course, speed is sometimes necessary, especially in May - but schools are always going to be busy places. The occasional tickbox might be justified, yet some uses of these are crass.
What eventually made me flip was being sent a four-item checklist about a marvellous woman who has more than 30 years of experience. It was insulting.
As a referee, I was supposed to distil the whole of her rich personal and professional life into four ticks - on dimensions such as punctualnot punctual, healthy unhealthy, with about half an inch of space at the bottom asking if I had "any further comment". I felt like writing, "Yes.
Bugger off, birdbrain."
Others have told me numerous stories similar to my own experience. One student teacher was sent a text message at tea-time to invite her to interview the following morning - "Oh, and by the way, you'll also be asked to teach a class," was the instruction, but no indication of age group or topic. Small wonder that newcomers to the profession are dismayed.
Then there was the school that sent a huge checklist with nearly 50 items for the referee to tick. In one case, the labels at the two opposite ends of the scale were "robust" and "collapses easily". What was this supposed to be about? A cardboard box?
In another inventory, the polar opposites were "follows instructions" and "tends to be disloyal". Clearly, they were looking for a brainless zombie.
Referees are even required to rate new teachers on items that are not even appropriate for newcomers, such as "capable of running a department", or being asked whether rookies are "outstanding" when they haven't even started yet.
Has the inordinate haste with which some appointments are being made produced the Tickbox Tendency approach, or does it merely reflect a climate in which schools are factories and teachers are robots? Is it the final triumph of the currently modish human resources strategy? But this should be renamed the "inhuman resources strategy" if appointments are based largely on numerical labels.
Other professions may follow the same fad. Perhaps referees for vicars have to tick a scale marked "saves soulsdoesn't save souls" at either end, while fresco artists are rated on a spectrum from "Sistine Chapel" to "garden shed". And human resources managers probably have a scale "complete prat even bigger prat".
Drastic measures are needed to satisfy Tim Tickbox and his voracious chums, so I have decided to found the Strategic Hiring Institute for Teacher Employment.
We at SHITE are developing a detailed state-of-the-art tickbox, scientifically designed to pick out the best candidate for any teaching job you care to name.
The bipolar items must be ticked on a three-point scale, from positive to negative on each dimension, as follows:
1. absolutely fantabulous
2. extremely average
3. You must be joking.
And, of course, then there are the personal qualities: fragrant pongs; assiduousskiver; plays dartstrainspotter; buys drinks skint; jollysuicidal; smartscruffbag; sociablebreaks wind; credibleDepartment for Education and Skills; likeable character Woodhead.
And professional skills: eruditeharebrained; classroom controlparliament; marks books soap addict; stays latevanishes; discreetscandalmonger; sets lots of homeworkforgets own name; extracurricularextramural; good with figuresByers; realistic approachNumber 10 policy unit; caringOfsted.
See www.zombies-to-go.co.uk, or write to Rentarobot, Tickboxes, Tillit, Hertfordshire.