The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the pupils

29th September 1995 at 01:00
Arnold Evans peers into his crystal ball to decipher the shape of the next national curriculum and predicts an inexorable expansion in the edutainment industry. I do not wish to know that, kindly leave the Key Stage!" Ms Worthington realised it wasn't a very funny line but, as Professor Frank Carson had explained repeatedly during her teacher-training year, success in the classroom depends on "the way you tell 'em."

It was September 5, 2000, her first day in teaching, and Ms Worthington was desperately keen to make a success of it. She had carefully modelled her classroom style on the entertainment greats: Dame Cilla "lorra lorra laffs" Black, Sir Brucie "nice to see you" Forsyth, and dear old Johnny "Neanderthal" Patten whose career had really taken off since he'd wisely stood down from Parliament and found his true vocation as a stand-up comedian.

Ms Worthington had taken enormous care about how she dressed, opting for sensible thigh-length boots and fishnets. She would have preferred the gold lame and Cher wig but she knew that's what the deputy head would be wearing - and she didn't dare upstage him. She had diligently practised her singing, tap-dancing, juggling, ventriloquism and tightrope walking. A primary school teacher had to master so many disparate skills in the 21st century - almost as many, she reflected, as were needed in the old days.

At least she wouldn't be lumbered with the old-fashioned Dearing curriculum. She was starting her career on the day the five-year moratorium on further changes came to an end. The Government, which was still led by Michael Heseltine and John Major - a double act that some compared favourably with the Krankies - had taken the somewhat controversial step of dumping the old curriculum in its entirety.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority had been relieved of the responsibility of devising a new one, and the task had instead been entrusted to the Variety Club of Great Britain. King Water Rat and his bunch of showbiz pros might not have been au fait with the latest educational theory (an important factor in their favour as far as the Government was concerned) but they certainly knew a thing or two about entertainment.

That was crucial. In the five years since Dearing, education and entertainment had become inextricably linked: the ethos of Sir Ron had given way to that of the Two Ronnies.

Even in the innocent days of 1995, it should have been possible to detect the trend. The advertisements for educational software in that autumn's issue of Parents and Computers offered evidence enough. There were multi-media packages that put "the fun in fundamentals"; others that made learning "easypeasy" and, in the case of the best-selling educational program, promised to be nothing less than a "Fun School".

Inevitably with the vast investment Microsoft and other giant companies made in "edutainment" in the intervening years, the software became increasingly spectacular and the copywriters' claims even wilder. Conscientious parents felt they had no alternative but to shell out the necessary pounds, shillings and pence (which were re-introduced as legal tender in 1998, the year the Chunnel was sealed in a bold attempt to unite the Tory party in time for itsconference).

With the phenomenal growth of the Internet and the information superhighway, homes became increasingly high tech. Children had access to vast storehouses of information and instant lessons on any conceivable subject with no more than a few fun-filled clicks of a mouse. Schools, on the other hand, remained hopelessly under-resourced and couldn't match the range of electronic wizardry that children routinely enjoyed at home. What's more, teachers, unlike copywriters, didn't have the temerity to guarantee they could make the tricky business of learning "easypeasy". Of course, they could - even in 1995 - have tried to argue that there was more to education than knowing how to summon up mountains of data. They could also have tried to explain that the only thing educational software could ever do - however flashy it might be - is provide children with colourful permutations of traditional skill-and-drill exercises.

But teachers were prevented from arguing their case with any conviction by a national curriculum that, despite slimming-down, reinforced the idea that education could be reduced to a series of "levels" subdivided into neat subject categories. If teaching was that manageable, it was reasonable for parents to deduce that a computer could do it every bit as well as an overworked teacher in front of an oversized class.

Instead of trying to resist the inexorable rise of the edutainment industry, schools became part of it. Since parents had been cudgelled into believing that education and entertainment were synonymous, schools had no alternative: Ms Worthington and her colleagues had to dab on the greasepaint and become fully-fledged entertainers. Of course, it was a manifestly absurd idea to hand over the design of the curriculum to a bunch of music-hall artistes - indeed, almost as daft as some of the educational initiatives of the 1980s.

Naturally it caused monumental mayhem - a consequence of curriculum reform to which teachers had long been resigned. But at least it did introduce them to one aspect of showbiz life that they sorely needed - the occasional round of appreciative applause.

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