Education, education, educationI it's all online nowadays. Whatever happened to the good old school visit? wonders Arnold Evans
Grown-ups don't like going to school. Perhaps it's the dusty corridors, the peeling posters on the noticeboard and the smell - a heady cocktail of forgotten gym shoes, mouldering text books, iffy plumbing and boiled cabbage - and all schools do somehow manage to smell of cabbage, whether it's on the menu or not.
In the old days, it didn't really matter. Apart from teachers, the only adults who ever saw the inside of a school building were the photographer on his biennial visit, and the gent from the fire service who drew the short straw and had to stand up in assembly on November 4 to deliver a sermon on retiring immediately after lighting the blue touch paper. The only time parents were allowed through the gates during working hours was to pick up children who had broken their limbs (or the law) and so were in urgent need of treatment - or a good solicitor.
If parents wanted to know what went on in school, they had to ask the children - who were bound by a vow of silence. Pester them about what they did in class and they'd find a dozen synonyms for "dunno".
Teachers were almost as secretive. Their communications with parents were restricted to the annual report in which they distilled their reflections on the year's work into one of four phrases: "Only Fair", "Quite Fair", "Fair" and - the highest honour which was in their gift to bestow - "Very Fair". Children never complained. They have never been in the forefront of the campaign for better home-school links because they are smart enough to realise that if mum and Miss get together for a chinwag, it is almost certain to result in less telly and more times tables.
Parents also benefited from the arrangement. All they had to do was fork out for the school uniform, sew on the odd name tag, find enough brown paper to cover textbooks and leave the whole messy business of education to those irreproachable - and unapproachable - men and women whose business it was.
How things have changed! In fact, schools have become so parent-friendly that if mums and dads accepted every invitation they receive to meet with teachers they could spend almost as much time in school as their kids. Even worse has been the impact of new technology. The once secret world of education is now an open book for anyone with a modem and an ounce of curiosity.
Schools have wasted no time in establishing their presence on the Net. Usually with nothing more than state-of-the-ark hardware and no formal training, teachers and pupils have managed to design some remarkable websites so festooned with whistles and bells that they make MSN or Disney's puny attempts look woefully uninspired. When meeja types and wannabe dotcom whizz kids try to bend my ear about the online extravaganzas they are planning to ceate, I give them the URL of RM's School Site of the Week . If something can be done with HTML, there's a bunch of smug Year Six pupils somewhere who have already done it.
The DFEE is also doing its bit to help parents keep informed. Using its site as a starting point, parents can do everything from compare local authority truancy rates to read a comprehensive range of OFSTED reports on individual schools. Believe me, there are more fruitful ways of spending your time online - learning the Klingon language, for instance, or watching webcam broadcasts of traffic flow on the M5.
The various LEAs, government agencies and exam boards are online providing more information on education, education, education than anyone could possibly want to know - unless they are junior ministers about to appear on Question Time or teachers mugging up for a deputy headship.
Not only does the Net provide a comprehensive guide to what pupils should be learning, but also an abundance of relevant resources to help them to learn. This material isn't nearly as difficult to find as cynics and technophobes like to pretend. An army of unsung heroes has gone to the trouble to set up sites that serve no other function than to provide a series of menus which classify thousands of other educational sites by subject and age. Parents could do worse that start with Topmarks or the brilliant KidsClick!
It's impossible to overestimate the potential impact that these - and a host of similar sites - will eventually have on the education system. Indeed, there is such a wealth of material so readily available that more and more parents are deciding to give schools the thumbs-down, preferring instead to use the Internet to educate their children exclusively at home. They are indefatigable enthusiasts whose thinking on how children should learn is still unsullied by the grizzling and the gobbledygook that characterises mainstream education. They are convinced that, since the arrival of the Web, the vast majority of children can do far better academically if they stay well clear of schools. Recent research carried out at Durham University and in the US suggests that they might very well be right.
Home educators who feel that their children should savour something of the school experience can always visit Discworld's definitive guide on how to cook cabbage.
To check out schools
Good launch pads to educational sites
RM's Site of the Week
Educate Arnold with your ideas at Arnold.Evans@btinternet.co.uk