Hang ups

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Mr Chris Woodhead, the supremo of the Office for Standards in Education, plans to get rid of 15,000 teachers that he says aren't up to the job.

Heads and governors are bracing themselves for the next round of compulsory redundancies. Record numbers of teachers are applying for early retirement. With so many abandoning ship or being forced to walk the plank, there isn't going to be anybody left to do the teaching.

There's always information technology, of course. It's already having a huge impact on almost every other walk of life. Hardly a day goes by without the newspapers reminding us that anything a human can do, a computer can do better - and at a fraction of the cost.

Forty patients in the UK, for instance, are receiving treatment from a computer in Wisconsin. They simply phone it up and explain their symptoms. Voice recognition software "understands" what they say and fires off supplementary questions, offers reassurance or tells them to keep taking the pills.

It's on call 24 hours a day, never says "there's a lot of it about" or grizzles about fund holding.

Obviously it's not ideal for patients who need a tourniquet applied in a hurry but is proving remarkably effective for depressives and the highly anxious who just want "someone" to talk to. A professor in one London teaching hospital is certain that it "is going to revolutionise therapy".

The fashion industry has equally high hopes for software that can design clothes and for the computerised fitting room developed at Nottingham Trent University which scans the whole body and prescribes a perfect fit every time.

Shop assistants realise their jobs are threatened by the information superhighway which is rapidly becoming a super high street where you can buy everything from a house to a holiday.

The new technology has even caught up with the ancient processes of diplomacy. The Foreign Office has sacked 500 of its Queen's Messengers - who needs diplomatic bags when sensitive documents can be encrypted and sent by e-mail?

Computers seem to be able to cope with everything else, so why not a Year 9 on a wet Friday afternoon? Of course, CD-Roms, integrated learning systems (ILS) and the Internet more than adequately cover every aspect of the curriculum; smart cards can manage registration and there are plenty of packages that can provide parents with acres of impeccably printed records of achievement.

Traditionalists will inevitably argue that these are no substitute for the unique experience of sitting in front of a truly inspired teacher.

Fortunately, that no longer entails having to go to the ludicrous expense of trying to sustain the high levels of staffing we have in our schools. Thanks to the advances in teleconferencing - the system that links sites by means of a video camera, computer and telephone line - a teacher can preside over several classes simultaneously. In theory, if all the classrooms in the country had the appropriate hardware, every pupil in the country could be taught by a single teacher.

Finding someone suitably qualified and held in sufficiently high regard to be entrusted with such a responsibility will not easy - but the words "Chris" and "Woodhead" spring quickly to mind. A technological breakthrough in Hollywood should ensure that his return to the chalkface - albeit a virtual one - needn't interfere with his already busy schedule.

Bruce Lee, the king of Kung Fu, although dead, is to star in a new movie. A computer has scanned every frame of film in which he has appeared, and is using the data to create new images which perfectly capture his movements, facial expressions, and speech patterns. If Mr Woodhead were to be cloned in the same way and delivered digitally to every school in the land, it would quickly prove cost-effective - and, of course, delight the OFSTED inspectors.

Practising teachers who find the prospect so distressing that they need immediate counselling could always try Wisconsin's 24-hour service.


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