Hang ups

4th July 1997 at 01:00
As surveys go, mine wasn't as thorough as it might have been, but I was in a hurry. I managed to corner a clutch of 11 teachers and asked them one simple question. "What would you most like to have in your classroom?"

Some were not as co-operative as I would have liked. One (or 9.09 per cent, as we pollsters say) asked to be registered as a "Don't Know". A disappointing 18.18 per cent requested that I go away because they were too busy to answer fatuous questions. Other responses included a VCR (27. 27 per cent), an overhead projector (9.09 per cent) and Brad Pitt (9.09 per cent). There were a couple of answers which tugged at the heart strings: an electric socket and a door handle that didn't come off in the hand. A staggering 36.36 per cent wanted a classroom assistant, and the IT lobby will be relieved to learn that 9.09 per cent wanted a computer. But then one plumped for a Teasmade - and that's when the trouble started.

Suddenly, they all wanted one and tried to persuade me to amend their original choices. It didn't stop there. Noisily, they started discussing the pros and cons of a toasted sandwich maker and a microwave in the classroom. It was when 9.09 per cent requested an Aga (in aquamarine) that I told them that they were all being very silly and didn't deserve to have nice things. They informed me that this has been official government policy for the past 18 years.

My research was inspired by a survey which posed the same question to teachers in the US. I'm not sure if the results should be taken any more seriously than mine. Surveys - or at least published ones - always seem to come up with exactly the findings that the people who financed the pollsters would like to hear. In this case, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) discovered that what 46 per cent of teachers would most like to have in their classroom is - you guessed it - a mobile phone.

Lucky staff who were given mobiles for a trial period made use of them for approximately an hour a day. They were able to communicate with the school office, without having to go to the inconvenience of visiting it in break time. They could talk to the janitor without having to trudge around the building to find him. During spare moments in lessons, they could keep in touch with colleagues and contact parents. The CTIA concludes that a mobile could save a teacher as much as 180 hours' work per year.

Not even the keenest techno-phile would make a similar claim for computers. Whatever their virtues might be, computers create more work the moment they are allowed into a classroom. It's not surprising, then, that IT fared badly in the American survey. Fewer than a quarter of the teachers opted for a laptop, and only 12 per cent felt an overwhelming desire to be on the Internet.

But perhaps the results are less interesting than the fact that somebody bothered to ask teachers what they wanted. For us in the UK, this seems positively bizarre. Ever since Kenneth Baker resolved to put a computer in every school, we've taken it for granted that politicians have a far better grasp of what's needed in a classroom than a mere teacher ever could.

As well as arranging a deal with BT to give every pupil an e-mail address, Mr Blunkett has already decided to devote a sizeable share of the proceeds from the Wednesday lottery to improving teachers' skills in IT. I know he wants to be seen hitting the ground running, but wouldn't it have been more sensible to ask teachers how they would like to see the money spent? I suppose he was worried that if he did, he might go down in history as the man who put a Teasmade in every classroom.

arnoldevans@easyn et.co.uk

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