Dear Eric Forth: How can 'truancy watch' work when tatty schools have to compete with video arcardes? A teacher at a comprehensive has a lesson for the minister responsible

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is the sheer size of the sum you have been given that is the real obscenity. Fourteen million pounds] If you aren't sure what that represents in terms of education spending, let me help you. It could have meant 17,500 new computers to enable children to become efficient users of the new technology. It could have paid the salaries for 700 extra teachers, reducing the numbers of pupils in each class and helping a few graduates off the dole. But no, Mr Forth, the pounds 14m has been earmarked for electronic registration programmes and 'truancy watch schemes' designed to track down errant pupils as they wander between the shopping precinct and McDonald's. Well, at least we know they will derive some fun out of the cash.

One dreadful irony of this appalling waste of money is that it also serves to contradict one of the few true statements that John Patten has made as Education Secretary. It was he who pointed out that truancy represents children 'voting with their feet' against the inadequacy of the education system. He was right. Teachers can't compete with the thrills of the video arcades and the latest computer games if they are struggling to communicate in overcrowded classrooms with dog-eared text books and tatty photocopied work-sheets.

Whatever their academic ability, children are aware of themselves as consumers and they know they are being short-changed by schools. Most truants have problems with learning and they know full well that their very special difficulties aren't going to be overcome in classrooms with 30 others. They know they are never going to acquire new skills in technological subjects if the equipment has to be shared and is, anyway, outdated.

To truant, therefore, is quite logical, and who can blame them? If we want to attract these children back to school we have to make the experience of education interesting and worthwhile, and to do that we have to spend money. Fourteen million would have been a good start.

Perhaps the most grotesque aspect of this exercise is that it benefits nobody and is largely inoperable. If, Mr Forth, you are successful in tracking down truants and bringing them to court, we all know that magistrates are so busy that by the time most cases come up it will be time for the truants to leave school anyway. And as for the idea of escorting truants back to the classrooms, would you please explain how that is going to benefit anybody? Can you imagine trying to captivate the attention of a child who has just had an exciting chase around the shopping centre and a hero's ride in a police car to the school gates? It strikes me that neither you nor Mr Patten know much about the realities of teaching if you think that's a feasible proposition.

I hope some of this causes you concern, Mr Forth. Do take care with that pounds 14m.

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