System failure

6th January 2006 at 00:00
It's quite possible to cheer and punch the air in celebration without making a sound. In fact, I managed to look sympathetically disappointed that their big chance to shine had ended up as such a disaster.

Mrs Gatsby, the headteacher of my school, standing beside me, looked like someone trying to stifle a laugh at a funeral.

The grand occasion was the local authority's Plugged In School Award 2005, which had been won by our neighbours, St Cuthbert's-by-Volvo. In fact, it was won by them last year as well, and the year before and as far back as anyone can remember. I think there's a picture in their technology suite of Isaac Newton giving them an early version of the award.

With golden leaves falling on the 4x4s and Hummers, Mrs Gatsby and I walked along the road leading to St Cuthbert's, ready to be patronised by our over-achieving neighbours. We were to watch a demonstration of how integrated technology could streamline the running of primary schools.

Headteacher Mrs Ingalls was waiting at the gate with a young woman from their PR agency, Sharp Words. They gave us the kind of look that chav relatives get at smart weddings.

"How lovely of you to have spared the time, when you've so much to do,"

said Mrs Ingalls, smiling glacially at us, while looking over our shoulders at some more important looking arrivals.

We were brought inside by a couple of purple-clad pupils and shown into the nerve centre of their technology empire, a room which looked like a cross between the NASA control room and the shop floor at PC World. This was the kind of place where bad guys in Bond movies might have had their headquarters.

There were council officials squeezed into crumpled suits, business sponsors smelling of company cars and the board of governors, checking their watches and wondering when they could slope off back to work.

Children lined up behind their computer monitors and the chair of the education committee was clearing his throat, ready to hand over the award.

Mrs Ingalls, looking ever-more like a statue of Queen Victoria, was ready to receive the homage of all present.

But then it happened. If it wasn't the hand of God, it was certainly his right index finger. The technician pushed the switch for the digital projector, but instead of images of Mrs Ingalls as the Great Leader, there was a loud crack, like a starting pistol on sports day, and then a faint smell of burning.

All the computer monitors shut down, making a loud collective sighing noise.

"It's the trip switch. I'll have to check the fault log and re-start the network," said the technician. And, like all of his tribe, he gave no indication that this was a) his problem or b) likely to be resolved in the immediate future. Instead it was c), he had us over an electronic barrel and was happy to keep it that way. "Can't see us getting it done today."

Mrs Ingalls stood frozen, startled into silence. Before she could regain her composure, a door flew open and three teachers rushed in, like breathless messengers in a Shakespeare play.

"The interactive whiteboards have stopped." They were young teachers who looked as if they had had their connecting cables cut. "We can't do anything."

Then the deputy head bundled into the crowd scene, holding up a blank piece of paper like Chamberlain after Munich. "We've lost the registration and attendance data. We don't know who's here today."

The school secretary, never one to miss out on a drama, made her own entry, shouting out that the e-mail had frozen and the budget data being swapped with the town hall had disappeared in an electronic blizzard.

This is how civilisations collapse from within. All the trappings were there, but without any power. The more you use technology, the more dependent you become.

"Shall we sing the song from the school play?" said Mrs Ingalls, grinning fiercely. "The words are in the computer," said one of the children.

"How awful for you," said Mrs Gatsby, with a straight face. "You could probably send the children home, but now you won't know where they live."

"Anyone got any chalk?" asked Mrs Ingalls.

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