Monkey plan is not so nuts

19th November 2004 at 00:00
"Monkeys are good at grammar." Did you know that? I didn't. I knew they could be trained with a stock of words - a bit like you teach the latest edu-jargon to college managers - but I had always assumed that grammar was beyond them.

But there it was on the BBC's news website: "Monkeys can understand the simple rules of grammar, a study at Harvard university has shown."

This worried me. I was concerned about who else might have seen it. For instance, what would they make of it in that elite band of brothers deep inside the Department for Education and Skills responsible for "blue skies" thinking in FE?

If monkeys can handle grammar, what is to stop them performing other simple tasks - such as lecturing to bunches of college students? And you have to admit that "Chimpions for Learning" has a certain ring.

OK, so it's a bit drastic to think of pensioning off the whole FE workforce and replacing them with hairy apes, but isn't that what "blue skies" is meant to be all about? Thinking the unthinkable? From the employers'

perspective, staffing colleges entirely with lower order primates would have its pluses.

First would be pay. They might be our nearest cousins, but monkeys clearly have fewer needs than humans. While you might argue that lecturers are already paid peanuts, think how much could be trimmed from college budgets if staffing costs could be calculated in real peanuts.

This could also put an end to all that messy collective bargaining. True, these days colleges tend to pay what they like - they call it "what they can afford" - but that doesn't stop some of the stroppier branches of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, from calling the odd strike or slapping in a work-to-rule.

It is hard to believe that Natfhe doesn't have a regulation somewhere in its constitution prohibiting other primates from the benefits of membership. There would be nothing to stop the chimps setting up their own union - Nutfhe perhaps? And a few bags of fruit and a new swing in the cage would work out a lot cheaper than parity with schoolteachers.

Let's face it, in all sorts of ways our new workforce will be more acquiescent and less troublesome than the old one. Presented with the umpteenth demand for yet another useless statistic, even that well-trained drudge the FE lecturer has been known to ask, "Why?" But monkeys, like quality managers, cannot be expected to know the difference between productive and non-productive tasks. Just give them a whiteboard marker, tell them it's a straight banana and send them out to do their stuff.

And think what it would mean for workforce continuity. Teachers' children always avoid the job like the plague. They see all too clearly what it does to their parents. But with monkeys you could breed selectively, thus ensuring that only those well suited to unremitting toil produced offspring. Any bright little fellows showing signs of originality or flair could be diverted with old David Attenborough tapes, while the thickos could be left to get on with the rumpty-tumpty.

But what of the other side of the coin? Can you be sure, even if you breed them especially for the purpose, that monkeys really can adapt to the rigours of the FE classroom? Faced with 12-hour days, ruined weekends and wall-to-wall stress, human lecturers react in predictable ways. First, they talk endlessly about their jobs to whoever is unfortunate enough to catch their eye. Then they spend time that they haven't got looking at brochures for holidays that they can't afford. And when that fails, they turn to their GPs for antidepressants which, with a bit of luck, will get them through at least until the next break.

But monkeys are unlikely to have recourse to that special fantasy land so beloved of knackered old humans - "early retirement in the Azores". They may just retreat to a corner of their cage and refuse to come out. And faced with a backlog of NVQ 2 marking, it is quite conceivable that they could lose the will to live entirely.

Then there is the issue of inappropriate public behaviour - I refer, of course, to monkeys, not lecturers. They (lecturers) have their nasty little habits, we know - but playing with their private parts in front of the class is generally not one of them. Possibly our furry friends could get away with it in biology practicals, but just imagine the health and safety nightmares in catering classes.

But maybe I'm being unduly alarmist. A closer reading of the article reveals that the monkeys used in the research - cotton-top tamarins to be precise - could only grasp "the simple pairing of words". Any grammatical constructions beyond that were, it seems, totally lost on them. And everyone knows that, even in FE, you need to string more than two words together at a time.

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