Oh, for those inky, stinky days

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Chris Bunting on the heady delights of the Banda and other gizmos we have known and loved

The young trainee teacher burst into the staffroom and began an excited monologue about the "wonderful" copying machine she had just discovered in the store cupboard. "It's cheaper than a PC, a projector and a photocopier!" she raved. "But it can do colour copies!"

What was this wondrous machine? The trainee admitted she had never come across the brand before - a "Banda". The older teachers in the room fell about laughing.

For the benefit of younger readers, Bandas are those hand-powered, ethanol-smelling copiers of yesteryear that your old teachers used for cranking out worksheets. Every school used to have one. Teachers of a certain age still reminisce about the inky fingers and ethanol-fuelled high that were the inevitable result of even the briefest Banda entanglements.

Xerox machines and flat-bed scanners have left these relics in the dustbin of copying history, but it seems the Banda cult is still alive in our schools. Stephen Hunter, managing director of Unigraph, custodians of the Banda brand, says his company is still selling dozens of the machines.

"There's a lot of demand abroad for them," he says. "You get missionaries and teachers in Africa who find them very useful because they don't need electricity."

But there are also still plenty of teachers in the UK who seem to be wedded to their Bandas. "We know because we keep selling them the ethanol," he says. One senior teacher in a Northern primary school reputedly has the catchphrase: "I love the smell of ethanol in the morning!" as he sweats over his Banda.

The teaching profession has always had an idiosyncratic relationship with technology. Companies have lost millions trying and failing to persuade schools to embrace their latest whizzy gizmos, but occasionally a product will make it. Once they have adopted some new technology, teachers are the most loyal of consumers.

And not just Bandas - there are teachers in the UK whose addiction to laminators borders on the obsessional: coating everything from their latest handout to the final demand from the gas company in see-through plastic.

The country's managers and salesmen may have moved on to PowerPoint decades ago, but the badly focused overhead projector is alive and wonky in Britain's schools. Whiteboards and wipeboards have made small inroads, but the good old blackboard, a device which revolutionised teaching in the early 19th century, is still the chalky champion.

Some popular equipment has met an untimely end. The cane and the tawse are keenly missed by a certain type of teacher, but most technology, once adopted by the profession, seems hard to budge. The trusty Bunsen burner, a fixture for more than a century in our classrooms, is still going strong.

And what physics teacher would feel adequately equipped without a Van de Graaff generator, invented in 1919?

So why are teachers so peculiarly conservative in their technological tastes? Is it a healthy scepticism about the real benefits of technology, perhaps combined with an admirable loyalty to equipment that has proven its worth? Or is it a belief that education is about stimulating the mind rather than entertaining the senses with gadgetry?

Perhaps there's another explanation - the same as the one given to a visitor at a school in Killingly, Connecticut, in 1841. This visitor was shocked at the complete absence of the "globes or other apparatus" that were then in vogue among cutting-edge educators. The headteacher offered a one-word reason for his lack of adventure: "Penuriousness."

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