Please don't beam me over;Last Word;Opinion

1st May 1998 at 01:00
YOU have to hand it to the right-wingers when it comes to producing ripping ideas. Now they want private companies to be able to make a profit out of running state schools.

Since 80 per cent or more of schools' budgets goes on salaries, the only significant profits will come from getting rid of teachers. Switching off lights and using envelopes twice would produce peanuts.

The latest wheeze for private companies to make a profit out of state schools is new technology. One teacher could teach three classes, it is argued, by appearing on screen before them. What planet are these people actually on?

This was exactly the argument put forward when radio was first tried out in schools in the 1920s. It was said that one of these "wire-less boxes" could be put in every classroom, saving a fortune in salaries. How typical of the Right to express nostalgia for the failed ideas of yesteryear.

I have done several video link-ups myself, but I am glad that I am used to presenting on radio and television. Sitting alone, at the mercy of a temperamental technology, no audience to bounce off, is weird. You talk to a blank wall, while looking out of the corner of your eye at a monitor with a tiny image of a group of people in a room miles away.

For the uninitiated, the use of video links is always eventful and goes something like this, if the telephone lines are actually working.

"Welcome to the video conference, ladies and gentlemen. We have contributors in America and Australia, so it's certainly worldwide communication. Let me bring in Dr Larry Barry, head of the Fastbuck Distance Learning Centre at Dimesville University. Larry, are you there?" Close-up of the back of someone's head. Muffled sound of technicians on both sides of the Atlantic muttering about ISDN 6 not being compatible with ISDN 2. Beep beep. Back of head becomes front of head. Broad smile, moving lips, no sound.

"Larry, I'm afraid we can't hear you. Can someone do the sound? That's better."

"I finest distance learning programmes in the United States I beep, crackle I thousands of students I crackle I superb communication network I" Caption appears saying "Dr Barry Larry, head of programme". "I if you look at this map here I" "Larry, er Barry, we can't see the map. Barry, the map I we can't actually see it."

"Crackle, beep I Incidentally, I love Scotland, and it's so good to speak to you folks in Scotland."

"We're in Stoke, Barry, that's in England. Look, we'll come back later. Let's switch to Professor Clueless in Adelaide. Professor, are you there?" Keystone cop figure crosses screen jerkily, carrying wires and plug. Close-up of Professor Clueless's bald patch as he bends down to pick up his light pen. Professor faces camera with nervous smile of someone caught picking his nose.

"Hello, beep beep, is that Stockport, England?" "It's Stoke actually, professor. Tell us about your distance learning programme. Is it a success, and what do you actually do?" "Crackle crackle I the three key concepts, the three Ds as we call them. I'll just put this graphic up. That's 'distance' and 'delivery', crackle I" Out-of-focus graphic appears upside down, then disappears again. Audience now in hysterics.

"We can't see the graphic, and we didn't get the third D, professor, what was it again?" "Dollars, Stockport. It's the most important of the three."

Even if the technology of projecting a talking head and supporting graphics to remote locations becomes 100 per cent foolproof, I cannot see that Year 4 or Year 9 will sit quietly, watching the screen and learning assiduously.

Perhaps the intention is to have an ex-army type in each room to keep order. "Right you 'orrible lot. Sit up straight and listen to the captain, er, I mean teacher."

Retired sergeant-majors would probably come cheaper than teachers and you could have classes of 100. This would then be the final fulfilment of the right-wingers' dream to recreate the 19th century in its entirety, and also make tidy profits for the private companies.

Like the professor said - dollars, Stockport. That's what it's all about.

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