Welcome to the Dalek factory

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
A group of deputy heads on a training course complained about the sheer boredom and banality of some of the tasks they had to complete.

"You think that's boring and pointless?" the trainer replied. "Wait until you're a headteacher - then you'll find out what 'boring' and 'pointless' really mean." The message seemed to be that, instead of inspiring them, training should explicitly prepare people for a futile life.

The initial training of teachers, especially for the primary phase, has now reached the stage where it is totally driven by the fulfilment of hundreds of objectives.

It is the ultimate horror, preparing people brilliantly for a life of box-ticking.

In order to become certificated as a teacher of primary and middle school children nowadays you have to complete 851 objectives. I'll repeat that, so the full nightmare can sink in. In order to teach children aged five to thirteen, you have to put 851 meaningless ticks in 851 stupid boxes.

It is so utterly preposterous, so monumentally crass, that the whole steaming edifice should be dismantled this second. Not tomorrow, not next week, not at some vaguely specified time in the future. Now.

The basic philosophy is misconceived. It goes back to a movement in the United States called Performance (or Competency) Based Teacher Training. Lists of hundreds, sometimes thousands of discrete micro-objectives were drawn up: "can ask a data recall question", "can mark homework", "can skin a wombat", "can scratch bum and write on blackboard at the same time". No, I tell a lie, that last one was probably two objectives, if not three.

Of course teaching can be broken down into weeny bits. But can it be stitched back together again? More pertinently, should teachers be trained and certificated objective by objective?

The awful thing about this dreadful externally imposed regime is that everybody realises it is stupid - trainers, teachers, students. Anyone with an atom of intelligence knows it. There are unicellular amoebas crawling out of ponds shouting:"It's bloody daft, scrap it for goodness sake."

Yet while those involved in the training re in despair, nobody outside it appears to know or care about this crazy bureaucracy. The whole shambolic system grinds on mindlessly. Students cough and their supervisors tick 16 boxes ("can inhale","can expectorate", "can reach for tissue", "can . . .).

Inspectors leap out on trainees from underneath manhole covers crying,"What's a phoneme?", or "Name an eleven-sided figure". "Er, is it a diggly docagon?".

This view of teaching as a purely mechanical activity is criminal. It distils out the intelligence and imagination, drains human warmth, reducing it to the robotic - fine for Daleks, useless for teachers. "I see a class. I will ... bludgeon it ... with my 851 objectives. Exterminate .. . exterminate."

The ultimate expression of this programmed view of teaching was the early training for headteachers on performance threshold assessment. Trainers, armed with stop-watches and a fat box of overhead projector transparencies, whacked on slide after slide to the utter bewilderment of the audience. The score showed a convincing victory: Objectives 132, Learning 0.

In a few years' time people will look back and ask bewildered questions. How did these things happen? Couldn't anyone see how stupid it was? Why didn't they riot?

We Brits don't riot. While other nations tip manure in public places, we send it out in official envelopes, make it mandatory, rejoice in the sheer masochism of it, create chaos out of ordure.

The problem is that, whereas events in schools impact on eight million children and their parents, what happens in teacher training only affects a limited population, though in the long term it could strangle the profession's initiative.

Fortunately most trainees and their mentors have enough gumption to rise above the banality, but it must stop.

So I have been compilng some competencies for the Teacher Training Agency and the Office for Standards in Education: "can assemble 851 objectives in big heap", "can strike match", "can set fire to pile", "can dance round flames naked shouting 'Hallelujah!'", "can revert to sane methods of training"... soon. Preferably today.

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