When it comes to the crunch

The industrial educational analogy takes the biscuit for John Clarke

Of all the plates teachers are expected to keep spinning nowadays, the one marked "economic and industrial awareness" tends to wobble the most.

Luckily, my awareness is heightened from time to time. Work experience, for instance, annually invigorates my industrial outlook when Year 10 disappears for two glorious weeks towards the end of a tiring summer term.

Recently, too, I took charge of a pack of personalised business cards. They will be a boon for all the high-level networking in which we teachers tend to get involved. Imagine the scene: "Mr Branson, how do you do? Do take one of my cards." Or: "Mr Gates, please take one of my cards and perhaps you can find a window for lunch."

My antipathy towards industry may be rooted in the romantic residue found in many English teachers, or it may stem from my formative years as a student. At that time, on the face of it, I was relatively affluent as a result of receiving a full grant and having lucrative holiday jobs (younger colleagues may need these concepts explained).

For one glorious summer, I was a biscuit crusher. I had to shovel broken biscuits from trolleys into a series of rollers and shovel the resultant crushed biscuit mixture out to be sent back into the main factory for re-use. It was a job of mind-numbing boredom, calling for complete vacuity of the brain. I was ideally suited.

I was so successful that the factory manager offered me a full-time position on the firm's graduate personnel management training scheme. Because I was good at crushing biscuits? No, because I was the only person ever assigned to that machine who had not deliberately sabotaged it to gain some light relief. I was flattered but firm in my response. I was going to be a teacher. The prospect of helping shape young people to make a dignified contribution to society was more appealing than the pursuit of the perfect custard cream.

This is still my view after 20-plus years in teaching - and it may explain why I'm reluctant to embrace the industrial analogy that is so often applied to education. Recently, though, I was forced into a rethink by a chance conversation. Mike works as a manager in a busy city office. He was trying to convince me of the mutual principles of successful offices and classrooms. You need to aim for 70 per cent efficiency, he told me. The remaining 30 per cent of time and effort should be spent in reinforcing the social networks that maintain any workplace; the casual conversations, the informal bonding.

Naturally, now living in a climate of lesson templates that account for every minute, I demurred, but he countered with a question that left me startled. "Which are your most difficult classes now, Years 7 and 8?"

Mike's theory is that these pupils have emerged from a system that hasn't allowed them to develop a relaxed, confident and autonomous attitude towards work. Pressures are brought to bear, the assembly line of testing has to be adhered to and productivity maintained. Now these pupils are kicking against the system. "But you wouldn't want a factory working at 70 per cent efficiency," I argued. His reply was simple. "Nor would you want to compare your classroom with a factory."

Hoisted by my own petard, I had to have a rethink. Crushed broken biscuits and disempowered pupils? It seems industrial analogies may be more accurate than we care to admit.

John Clarke is head of English at Balby Carr school, Doncaster

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