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just get on with your work – and stop that!

Posted on May 13, 2019

factory fodder

Here’s a joke I’ve always liked.

A visiting minister of industry from a developing country is being shown round a factory. He is interested in modern methods of production and distribution. As the factory owner proudly displays features of his firm’s work, a buzzer sounds and all the workers stop for a cup of tea or go to the toilet. Ten minutes later the buzzer sounds and they all resume their work. The grandees continue their tour and a couple of hours later, the buzzer sounds and the workers stop for lunch. Buzzer, resume. Five o’clock – buzzer, and everyone sets off home.

As owner and visitor settle down with a good Scotch, the former asks what his guest has made of the way his enterprise operates. Unhesitatingly, the visitor responds: ‘There is one thing I have seen above all else that I require for my country’s industrial development. That buzzer’.

Most of us are enculturated into a world of work controlled by timings, managerial scrutiny and regulation. Our physical needs, appetites and bodily functions are trained to work around the requirements of production and output. One of the most grotesque manifestations of this is in that most modern of production lines, the call-centre, where the monitoring of workers has been honed to a microscopically refined art.

Where better to start this acceptance of regimentation than at school?  Just to pre-empt any misunderstanding here, as someone who spent nearly thirty years teaching in comprehensive schools, I am definitely not calling for an end to structure, order and punctuality. On the other hand, no-one wants to see our children treated as the robotic factory fodder of the future. Do they?

All of which makes last weeks’ report from University College London an alarming read. Over the last twenty years, schools have systematically truncated children’s break and lunch times so that their opportunity to meet each other, eat together in a relaxed way or just turn off and do stupid things (which is, lest we forget, what kids are supposed to do) is now worryingly restricted.

There’s a slew of reasons why schools do this. Midday supervision costs money and play areas have been steadily sliced away from school premises. And then we have the most pernicious, vile reason of the lot: break and lunch are lost ‘learning time’. I’ll try not to shout the next bit for those who come out with such guff and who are so clearly hard of understanding: kids need to run around, let off steam, be unsupervised by adults and learn to deal with the unexpected. That way…..listen carefully now….they’ll have a better chance of doing their precious learning when they get back in the classroom.  Over a hundred years of serious pedagogic study, along with what your grandma knows, tells you that this is so.

All of this learning time is there so that we can get more kids to pass more tests, thereby proving that standards are improving. There’s not enough space in a blogpost to take apart this most specious of arguments, but by all means bring it up in the ‘comments’ section and I’ll elaborate. What is regrettably incontrovertible is that we’re producing unhappy, pressurised young people to send out into the great wide buzzer-controlled world.

A world where, in a saddening coda to this early restriction of social interaction, we’ve become too busy and frazzled to have sex on a regular basis. Again, to allay potential confusion, the line of argument here is not that we need to provide more behind-the-bike-shed bunk-up time in order to practise for adult life. But in what is, admittedly, a speculative comment, the report’s lead researcher suggests that one of the causes may have been the ‘sheer pace of modern life’. This was eagerly seized upon by mainstream media who chose illustrations and stills showing couples in bed either looking at their phones or with one partner asleep and the other grumpily and stubbornly awake. Yep – that’d be it. Obsessed by our phones, living a virtual life when there’s a real one to be enjoyed. It’s a credible enough suggestion.

However, in all the coverage of this fruity and welcome respite from grizzly politics, one sentence in the report was ignored. It’s worth quoting in full: People in better physical and mental health and those who were fully employed with higher incomes reported having sex more often. Well, there’s a thing. If you’re well off and have done reasonably well for yourself, you’ll continue to enjoy the good things in life more frequently and for longer (no….stop it….in terms of age, not what the stop-watch says).

In all seriousness – and with deference and respect to those in my former profession who do almost nothing but good – I am not suggesting that schools are deliberately curtailing social association as part of some elaborate, conspiratorial exercise in control and subjugation. Neither do I think that helping young people to develop a sound work ethic is anything other than beneficial. But to send the message that time spent not working is time wasted is to send the most miserable of messages to our young people.

During my own time as a teacher a favourite exercise was to get young people to speculate on what the future would bring. We’d have phones where we could see each other and TV sets on our wrists! We’d never have to cook again as all our food would all be in concentrated pellets. Weather would make no difference because we could protect ourselves against anything that nature would throw at us. But, above all, and as a constant strain through the decades, our principal problem would be what to do with all our leisure time when the robots had taken over and we had no work to do.

And then the buzzer would go off.

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