That old desktop tradition

14th April 2000 at 01:00
I MET INA the other week while reading desktops in a secondary school between talking to pupils about what a press officer does.

INA seemed to appear on every desk at the non-denominational establishment, and I began to wonder if she was a popular member of staff, a popular female pupil, or another young lady whose phone number was available, if the desks were to be believed, for extracurricular activities.

But all was revealed on the ninth desk in the row, for INA turned out to be the initial letters of "In a Row", and the whole message, "Nine In A Row", turned out to refer to Rangers FC and their prowess on the field.

Desktop publishing of the sort indulged in by pupils, can tell you a lot about a school.

All of it has to be condemned roundly as a form of vandalism, but some of it, if you try to forget about the thousands of pounds spent yearly on removing it, is witty and, occasionally, quite intellectual. But much of it reveals a very poor grasp of the rudiments of spelling.

Not far from our friend INA, was "Jimmy is a pedo file", while, at a Glasgow denominational establishment attended by my own boys, where IRA replaced INA as the most common set of initials around, there was the never-to-be-forgotten "Chucky ar la", a very phoneticised version of the Sinn Fein slogan, "Our Time Will Come", rendered in such a way that the Gaelic League class Irish teachers would have committed suicide.

But you have to ask yourself how pupils get away with all this without detection, given that it's actually quite hard to penetrate varnish and make an impression on hard desktop wood.

It's certainly true that the worst examples are to be found on exam desks, where the art of carving formulae, insults and advice to examiners and invigilators, not forgetting the ever-present and ever-popular girl's phone number, is highly developed.

Teachers who make an impression, good or bad, also feature on desk tops and there should be a system of professional review and development based on what the kids commit to the woodwork.

I've never seen HMIs reporting on this unofficial but highly-developed appraisal system operated by pupils, but desk tops bearing messages such as "Mojo is a little Hitler", and "Miss M wants a seeing to," surely give a very pupil-centred view of staff abilitiesand character.

It's also true that there's nothing new about writing on desks, for a quick visit to ancient examples in Scotland Street Museum of Education, reveals anguished pleas for love and revenge carved and illuminated by felt-tip pen-bearing pupils of the 1970s and 1980s, while ancient carvings are to be found on desks in heritage centres anywhere in Scotland.

The art form also extends to further education, where, in the days when FE taught engineering and other basics, peppered with a little general studies, spelling was awful, sectarian football slogans dominated and lecturers who saw a City and Guilds day release session as more than a carry-on were dubbed "H-- is a b--". With a modular approach, all that has changed, although now lecturers at universities are complaining that desk top communication has spread to them, with the intellectuals of the classical past having long since given way to the random spelling of the present, and that's not just in the engineering faculty.

Reading the desktops of a school tells you a lot about it, and, if it is to be believed as a snapshot of Scottish education in action and of the satisfaction levels of the ultimate consumer of the product, the pupils, it makes dismal reading.

Some desks I have read have displayed a disturbing knowledge of drugs use and misuse, which leaves you wondering where the writer, probably in fifth or sixth year, learnt the substance of the recipe embossed in the woodwork.

Others show that, despite sex education, certain insults common when I was at secondary over 30 years ago are still current, and there's no doubt that calling the sexuality of a teacher into question is probably still the number one desk top insult.

I can recall a technical teacher who put his less willing charges to work sanding down the desk tops to make them pure again, just as the slate used to be wiped clean.

That was as it should have been, for desktop publishing by pupils has to be current to allow for changing teenage culture, and the man was doing pupils a service by cleaning their medium for further and topical use. Desktop publishing is a unique source of information for a press officer, and it shouldn't be sneezed at as a diagnostic tool for school performance.

Ask INA. She knows.

Hugh Dougherty

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