Don't give us a pat on our backs

20th June 2003 at 01:00
REMEMBER those adventure stories where the hero was in a terrible pickle at the end of each chapter, tied to a chair, gagged, room flooding, walls moving in, no possible means of escape? The following chapter then began with some variation of the immortal words: "With one bound he was free ..."

The Pupil Achievement Tracker, the scheme for logging every pupil's test scores on a computer, has the potential to be the polar opposite of such welcome liberation. Universal mechanised hounding will become the ultimate nightmare.

The Department for Education and Skills has proudly announced that a CD-Rom of the Pat is to be sent out to schools in September. Pupils' computerised data will then be used to set each an individual target, compare them with every other child, and check if they have met their targets. It will demoralise many, though the more spirited may well rebel against this remorseless tracking.

There were further gleeful announcements about this new piece of 21st-century wizardry. Teachers and schools can also be set targets. Heads will use the Pat to root out weak departments. Schools will be encouraged to share the information with parents, so they can compare their offspring with every pupil in the land. Each child will be individually manipulated.

All this "at the touch of a mouse", it was said. None shall escape. With one bound he was ... er ... bound.

Let us be clear about what I am saying. I never had a toy train as a child, so I love playing with computers and I do not mind if my gas and electricity bills are computerised. It is the ice-cold view of child-as-machine that grates.

Assessing pupils in order to identify needs, provide feedback, keep records of progress - all these are fine. The odious part is treating children as production-line objects, to be constantly compared with others coming off the national conveyor belt, purely on what is most easily measured. Pupil number 3,191,460 scores 3.79 instead of her predicted 3.94, so she is in deep trouble. She is below pupil number 4,274,759.

Some might argue that it is no different, except in scale, to what the Jesuits did in the 16th century. The teaching handbook, Ratio Studiorum, written in 1586, required the teacher to match up pairs of pupils, so they could compete with each other in class. At least you could see your rival, and teachers were urged to make extensive use of praise. Nowadays the rest of the punters are all out there in their millions, invisible to the poor targeted-to-death little seven-year-old in Swinesville primary school.

I have been trying to work out which piece of fiction best predicts this development. The obvious candidate is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, but more apt is Franz Kafka's short story, In the Penal Colony. Set in a prison camp in a barren valley, the punishment for prisoners is administered by a machine which engraves someone's crime on their back so they understand it better. There is great pride in its neat efficiency.

Eventually the crime-engraving machine kills its operator, inscribing "Be just" on him. Old Franz had a decent track record for prediction.

Cold-hearted technology can eventually bite its user. You have been warned.

So I cannot understand the glee at this early 21st-century social nightmare. Just because the technology is there to track, package and hound every child and teacher, does not mean to say that it must be used. Is there to be no escape? The prat with the Pat will track the Sat. Rebel, for goodness sake.

"Ah, come in, Simpkins, I'd like to discuss your Pat profile with you."

"Is it looking good, headmaster?"

"Afraid not. Darren Rowbottom got 2.7 levels below his prediction in the maths Sat, so that's brought you below your overall class target."

"But I gave him the bribe, headmaster, and I drove him to school every day."

"Won't do, unfortunately, Simpkins. And there's worse. We tracked you out walking your dog on the common last night and I'm sorry to say it was detected widdling on a tree with a preservation order on it - so that puts you in even greater trouble."

"I didn't realise ..."

"Oh yes, we can track anything nowadays. Incidentally, the Pat predicted you would win the staff darts tournament and you only came third, so there'll be no upper pay spine for you."

"Well, I'm afraid you won't be able to do any more tracking in future, headmaster, because Darren Rowbottom has ruined your machine."

"Ruined it? What has he done?"

"The brat shat on the Pat."

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