What began in the early 1860s and ended in 1904? What was condemned as a disaster by one of our greatest poets? What do some extremists want to restore in all its glory, despite this?
The answer is the much reviled 19th-century system of "payment by results". The right wing of the Conservative party wants to bring it back again, as it fits in neatly with the free-market notion of survival of the fittest and the weakest going to the wall.
By 1871 schools were being paid an initial government grant of ten shillings per pupil, of which six shillings was for "average attendance" and four shillings was for passing basic "grade tests". There were also payments for younger children and particular subjects, but it was the four shilling bounty for passing tests that killed imagination for over a generation. "Payment by results" was heavily criticised and eventually ditched.
Ever since that time it has caused great mirth whenever it was mentioned. "You mean, young children sat chanting slogans that many simply did not understand?" (slaps thigh with laughter). "And inspectors had to go into classrooms to see whether these children could recite mechanical answers to set questions?" (collapses on to floor with mirth). "All so that the school could collect another four bob apiece?" (pounds floor helplessly).
The most famous critic of payment by results was Victorian philosopher and poet Matthew Arnold, whose lesser-known day job was that of school inspector for 35 years, from 1851 to 1886. In his book State Educator, Eric Midwinter gives a moving account of how Arnold hated his job.
Young children were dragged into their classroom, even when they were sick, so the inspector could test them, otherwise the school would lose money, and thus some of its teachers. Arnold compared Victorian schools to the army, saying repeatedly that his role was merely to "inspect the cartouche-boxes", or cartridge cases.
Now the right wing (Loonytunes policy 149c) wants to restore payment by results. It is yet another example of its comical nostalgia for the 19th century. The 21st-century version of this failed system would involve teachers being assessed, and indeed paid, according to their pupils' test results.
This is great news if you work in a highly selective school, rotten news if you teach pupils with learning or behaviour problems. I can just picture the scene: "Ah, come in, Brian. Now we've been taking a close look at your test scores!" "Oh really, Mr Hardcastle? Good news, I hope."
"I'm afraid not, Brian. You see, we at Conveyor Belt High School are determined to have the best payment by results system in the country and there are a few problems with your salary assessment."
"But I got a good report from OFSTED. In fact, the inspector said I was the best 'generally sound' special needs teacher they had ever seen."
"Indeed. But take the answers to national payment by results test question 3: 'Describe the climate of the polar regions.' The correct answer, according to the national payment by results test handbook, should be: 'The polar caps have tundra and glacial climates, with little precipitation.' But I'm afraid Elspeth Scattergood has let you down badly."
"I don't understand, Mr Hardcastle. I've had the children chanting the answers to all the questions ever since last September."
"I'm sure you have, Brian, but Elspeth writes: 'The police caps have thunder and glazed climbers, with little participation.' That one lost you Pounds 50 for starters."
"But she's only got an IQ of 60, and she has got the commas and full stops in the right places, just like we practised."
"Well, it's cost you five big ones on the salary front. Then take Harry Ramsbottom. He puts: 'The polar regions ended with the defeat of King Richard III by the future Henry VII at Bosworth Field in 1485.' I mean, it just won't do."
"But that's only a simple slip, Mr Hardcastle. He's written down the answer to national payment by results test question 4, instead of question 3, by mistake. You know, the one that says: 'Describe the ending of the Wars of the Roses'. We've chanted the answers so many times it's not surprising if some of the slower ones get them a bit mixed up."
"You know the rules, Brian. A genuine pupil mistake loses you Pounds 50, but the tariff for answering the wrong question is Pounds 75."
"So how does this affect my salary? I don't understand the new system. "
"It's simple. Mrs Sanderson, who takes the A stream, will gross Pounds 40,000. Mr Bindweed, who takes the B stream, gets Pounds 20,000. You and the other special needs staff owe us Pounds 200 apiece."
"But that's not fair, Mr Hardcastle. We've run our socks off all year with some of the most difficult kids in the school."
"I know, Brian. That's why I've got a two-stage plan to boost your salary. "
"Two stages? I don't follow."
"Don't you see? The way to earn more money is to become a better teacher. I'm going to help you become a better teacher, and get a higher salary, in two stages. The first stage is to stop you being a bad teacher, so I'm going to exclude all your special needs kids."
"What about the second stage?" "The next step is my master plan to turn you into a good teacher. Mr Major wants to have a grammar school in every town, so we shall become Conveyor Belt Grammar School and you will then automatically become a good teacher."
"But how will that help the education of my special needs children?" "Education, Brian? What's education got to do with it? It's results we're talking about."