Updated: Oct 10, 2021
“To err is human but to make a real mess of things you need a computer.” (Anon)
The Headteacher looked back at the school buildings one last time as his head was gently forced into the police car. The fires were almost out now and the plumes of smoke were only periodically visible when illuminated by the flashing blue lights from the police cars and the 2 remaining ambulances. It was too early to say how many casualties there were but it seemed that remarkably there had been no fatalities. His career was over and the MBE that had been proudly announced in a press release the previous week would now certainly be rescinded. Having seen the improvement in school meals in recent years he started to wonder if Jamie Oliver might make a move into prison food.
It had all started so well. Shiny Heights Academy had been the first school to employ the TeacherBot. Having grown tired of the constant wrangling with the unions over pay and conditions, staff absence and on one occasion a member of staff being found asleep in front of the class, a radical solution was called for. The advantages of the TeacherBot were many. They did not need breaks so were perfect for the new extended day, they didn’t require free periods. They didn’t need time to log information on the school computer, they were the computer. They didn’t mind being observed or monitored, the on board camera allowed him to witness any lesson or activity he wished at any time. They didn’t need paying, that was the big one for the governors: the expense of a few bottles of WD-40 rather than £30,000 plus a year. So when the staff threatened to strike over their new 8am-6pm contracts with reduced holidays, he had called their bluff. The entire teaching staff was replaced by 20 TeacherBots. He had been praised in the House of Commons for his courage and openness to technological solutions in schools.
There had been a few initial teething troubles – nothing like the events of today – but issues nevertheless. It seemed that the Bots programmers had struggled to build in sufficient empathy and flexibility. Even the PE Bot had been programmed with the ‘no running, no kicking’ rules. The school football team’s match was abandoned in the ensuing chaos. Likewise when Sally in Year 8 was crying over her Grandmother’s recent death, the reply ‘sadness is illogical – there is nothing more you can do for her now’ did not help. The Bots attempts at delivering the sex education programme had been filmed by a student and uploaded to YouTube. So the school was closed a couple of times for training days as a result – software upgrades more to the point. There had also been an attempt to put more ‘passion for the subject’ into the Bots – an external consultant having observed that although lessons were certainly good and well differentiated, there was a certain spark missing. Just when do constant teething troubles become actual problems that need addressing? If he knew the answer to that he would have been a better headteacher or not even become a headteacher at all. Certainly he would not be sitting in the back of a police car.
Humans were capable of inspiring energetic communication as well as infuriating inconsistencies. Nevertheless the experiment was over and these flawed human teachers would be in place when the school reopened. A human teacher would have warmth and humour; they would have the flexibility and understanding to deal with the students in front of them. Human beings indeed lacked the consistency of the machines yet they understood other human beings and were capable of assessing complex situations in seconds and adjusting their response accordingly. A human being understands that ‘burn after reading’ in the scheme of work was a reference to a film – not an imperative. If only the GCSE Media syllabus hadn’t been changed to include extracts of that film. If only the bot had the sense not to try and teach from a syllabus that was alight. If only we hadn’t programmed the bots to block the door and say ‘the bell is a signal to me’ when students moved suddenly. Certainly the fire alarm and evacuation would have been much smoother.
The final straw (and most of the injuries) had come when one bot locked the doors when the sprinklers came on – apparently it had concluded that the ‘rain’ meant that people must be all outside already. The head teacher looked forward as the police car started moving. Suddenly he realised that humans were the best teachers. Yes, it all seemed so obvious now.