PC or not, there's room for Mr Plod

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Why shouldn't there be scope for retired policemen in class? asks Arnold Evans

The Teacher Training Agency's latest wheeze is aimed at persuading older members of the police force to cast aside their truncheons and take up a career in teaching. If menopausal male teachers feel their sap rising at the prospect of a bevy of Helen Mirrens suddenly gracing the staff room, I had better point out that this recruitment drive is aimed exclusively at policemen.

It is part of an attempt to redress the gender imbalance in teaching. It will also deliver, according to the chair of the Metropolitan Police Commission, "exactly what the politicians want, which is extra discipline". It's not that simple, of course. Just because a police constable has shown himself to be a dab hand at controlling traffic, it doesn't necessarily follow that he'll be able to control a class last lesson on a wet Friday afternoon.

However, having a bobby or two - even retired ones - on the premises might make a difference in those schools that are routinely targeted by the local felons. A spate of break-ins is dispiriting for staff and pupils and, inevitably, can have an adverse effect on the quality of education. For example, a teacher explained to me recently that she found it difficult to deliver the national curriculum requirements for information technology when the only way to give her pupils an opportunity to get hands-on experience of the school's computers was to take them on a visit to the local car boot sale.

Even if every item of hardware is chained in place, too many teachers find their lesson plans blighted by petty acts of vandalism. The smarter alecs have no problem sneaking a virus into the system. They can hack into confidential files and create untold mayhem. They often know far more about the subtleties of the software than their teachers do and, naturally, feel honour-bound to customise it in such a way as to make it unworkable.

But even pupils who lack these sophisticated IT skills can play their grisly part. They can clog up the keyboard with chewing gum or surreptitiously yank out a crucial cable to ensure that the IT co-ordinator wastes the rest of the day in a frenetic race to trace the problem before the effects of a daily dose of Prozac wear off.

Only this week, a secondary teacher told me of an impromptu game of marbles he stumbled across while on duty during the lunch break. It all seemed so delightfully innocent until he noticed that the boys weren't flicking traditional marbles but grey rubber balls. They had removed them from every mouse in the computer room. For a whole morning, pupils had sat twiddling their thumbs and blaming Miss for the fact that the computers wouldn't work. Miss, of course, had spent the morning in silent prayer, resolving never to take a class anywhere near a computer ever again.

It's the sort of tale of woe that you often hear from teachers. It's one obvious reason why so many of them - maybe as many as 70 to 80 per cent of the profession - refuse to use IT in their lessons. It's not that they are technophobic, rather that they simply don't think that bringing mischievous children into contact with delicate hardware is worth the hassle. And it will take more than the entire proceeds of the Wednesday Lottery to persuade them otherwise.

The Government, however, is determined that computers will play a central role in education, education, education. Indeed, it is now seen as a serious breach of political correctness to dare to question the wisdom of this. When teachers do, they are labelled Luddites, and reminded - yet again - of the miraculous feats that computers can perform.

Unfortunately, despite the remarkable advances in educational software, the manufacturers haven't yet come up with a program that can eradicate original sin. As Mr Straw might point out to his colleagues at the Department for Education and Employment, children have a natural propensity to do those things that should be left undone. Even in the best class, there will always be one pupil who - given half a chance - will succumb to the temptation to post a peanut butter sandwich into a disc drive for no other reason than to see if it fits.

As long as computer mice have balls, little boys are going to be overwhelmed by an urge to compete in an impromptu game of keepsies. So if information technology is to become an integral part of the educational process, teachers will have to be particularly adept at spotting potential wrong-doers. Perhaps the Teacher Training Agency's latest initiative is a step in the right direction. It might not be PC to say so, but a few retired PCs could do more for IT in schools than a few new PCs.

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