British primary school classrooms have been invaded by a new species of creature. They sit silently at children's tables, jumping to attention as a child lifts a pencil to peer over any subsequent work produced. They give no feedback on their opinions and impressions - their faces locked in an inscrutable plastic smile. Their features carry an affluent surplus of fatty, baby-faced tissue.
Can these be school inspectors who have sampled too many school dinners? Quality assurance officers set to weed out underperforming teachers? No, these are the Rugrat pencil-tops, free with packets of Kelloggs Rice Krispies and Banana Bubbles. Commercialisation is unashamedly exploiting children's breakfast cereals.
In the past, cornflake packets carried the cut-out heads of British historical figures, wild animals or even national costumes. All had a smattering of educational worth, if only that you shouldn't blunt your Dad's last razor blade in cutting the slits in Henry VIII's head. Such loftier educational ideals are deserted by the plastic heads of the Rugrats.
The Rugrats are a group of American characters from a children's cartoon series of the same name screened on BBC television on Saturday mornings. Although a group of young infants and toddlers, they interact at a much more advanced level. They normally scheme out various adventures when their parents and guardians have been naive enough to assume they are perfectly safe and isolated from danger.
Parents underestimate the maturity and ability of all of the Rugrats. There is an older sister who bosses the other children but never seems to get caught by the parents. There are also twins who can take each other's place as the storyline requires.
There cannot be a primary school in the country (unless pencil-tops have been banned from them) which does not contain at least one of the Rugrats' pencil-tops. Many children, by eating extra-large portions of Rice Krispies, lying to their parents about the amount of cereal left in the cupboard or planting packets of the relevant cereals in the shopping trolleys of unsuspecting parents have actually managed to procure the complete Rugrat pencil-top set of three children plus Spike the family dog.
The pencil-tops serve no practical purpose, although it is striking that rubbers, rulers and pencil-sharpeners have all taken on a dual purpose. Not only do they fulfil a major practical purpose they are also a little mascot or comforter. Cartoon characters, cuddly animals, vehicles and space creatures, to name only a few.
Never mind the comfort of a monster, kitten or puppy in your pocket. Pencil-case products can be taken right out of your pocket and pencil-tops are probably the best of the bunch for doing this with. They only have to suffer the indignity of having a pencil pushed up their back end, before being waved and flaunted under the teacher's nose.
After all, it's only your pencil-top and it can serve as a loyal and faithful companion, sticking with you through even the most turgid pages of Heinemann maths or the dreariest imaginative writing. The teacher might put your work to the bottom of the pile while marking but your pencil-top sticks with you while you are doing it. Where else would you get a friend like that?
Despite a propensity of cuddly cute creatures in the world of pencil-tops, they are not an exclusively female interest. One may be forgiven for thinking that such elaboration of pencil-case items would be of limited interest to boys who normally show less interest in the well-being or appearance of items in their school bag.
Uncovered homework jotters which look as if they have had a fish supper eaten off the cover invariably belong to boys. Reading books that have the corners turned over as though someone has attempted to use them to make an origami model of a bird with moving wings invariably belong to boys. Used towels from swimming lessons can live for a surprising time in the bottom of school bags which belong to boys.
Yet the pencil-top market not only caters for boys but also seems to have won many of them over. Football players, football mascots and club badges can all be found decorating the pencils of boys. There is nothing cissy in having the right type of pencil-top.
Pencil-tops are a strange contraption. Manuals of construction kits relate that it is fairly basic technology that any pressure applied to one end of a lever produces a much greater pressure at the opposite end of it. Could not the weight of the pencil-top exert an undue influence on the child's control of the other end of the pencil which is the part doing all the writing?
Children claim that the extra weight on the top of the pencil does not affect their writing, although as the saying goes, "they would say that". There are few items of the curriculum parents are more concerned about than neat handwriting. Yet the sheer popularity of pencil-tops suggest there are no parental objections. Teachers probably have more reservations.
There must be a good primary science study here. This is the stuff of action research. You could have children with and without pencil-tops drawing a path between narrow, tortuously curved lines to see which group were most accurate.
Just think. The results may be surprising. The weight of the pencil-top may have no effect but the calming effect of a little Rugrat friend sharing your difficulties and overseeing the work could prove beneficial. Would the requisition for next year stretch to a crateful?
Ally Budge is deputy headteacher, Miller Academy, Thurso.