One of the great privileges of teaching (see Alex Comfort’s Joy of Pedagogy) is the opportunity it affords to engage in a Socratic dialogue with the best and brightest. When the best and brightest are not available, you make do with the class gadfly.

“I reckon youse is for the big drop, Sir,” quoth Tarquin this very day. The honorific, it should be said, was delivered in a tone strictly ironic. And that “youse” was a mere blind. The Tarquins of this world do not get to their positions of eminence in the student hierarchy by advertising their intelligence.

“I think you will find that ‘you’ suffices for the plural as well as the singular. But please, young fellow my lad, you are obviously about to embark us on a journey.”

“Didn’t you read the paper this morning?”

“Did you?” I retorted, scoring, I believe, a hit. The class lifted its collective snout and sniffed the air. Some intuition alerted them to the fact that there were ramifications to this contest even if they could only be guessed at. Did Tarquin twitch ever so slightly?

This was a dangerous moment for the teacher, too, of course. The pack is quite capable of savaging the outsider who threatens the alpha male. “But perhaps you are referring to the thoughts of Dear Leader as expressed in this morning’s paper?” (Sometimes compassion is the better part of valour.)

“That’s right,” my antagonist drawled. “You don’t perform and you’re gone.” This last he pronounced “gawn” and the pack ululated with approval. 

What to say? That the notion of an education system which delivers “returns” and “outcomes” makes perfect sense.

It is the enforcement of the regime, though, which has the Lowbottom common room flummoxed. Generally these initiatives are encouraged through a carrot and stick strategy. As far as any of us can see, Dear Leader is proposing a stick and stick incentive scheme. If a school does not perform, the principal will be sacked, senior staff replaced, the school “reorganised” (what a wonderfully Orwellian verb) or the school itself “disappeared” in a merger with a more efficient school.

To achieve any of this, of course, the Federal Government requires “indicators”. Academic results matter, naturally, but we anticipate a slew of student satisfaction surveys, parent feedback forms and the like. Some are already calling it a Reign of Error. It gives the whip hand to those dreaded creatures the helicopter parents who are about to descend in a black cloud. Ingratiation will be the order of the day.

And blackmail. Tarquin, in a feat of clairvoyance, appears to have divined the way the mind is drifting. He is smiling, as novelists like to express it, evilly.

“Of course,” you say, directing a particular look at the grinning face, “as far as judging schools and teachers is concerned, the devil is in the detail. There will be lollies for all those who complete Exercise 5E, regardless of quality.”

O brave new world that has such performance indicators in’t.

Peter Fray

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