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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 11:12 GMT
Teachers get to make virtual decisions
Teachers can now play out typical scenarios of school life online in a "virtual school", as part of a new training programme.
A child has a diabetic fit as you are trying to deal with the major strategy change in your subject area which has popped into the "in tray" in your virtual office.
You can see the impact of the decisions you make on your colleagues in the virtual staffroom and, longer term, on the pupils.
And crucially, if it all goes horribly wrong there's a "hindsight button" that lets you start again.
Measure of progress
The virtual school is a multiple choice game on the National College for School Leadership's website.
It has been built by computer experts at the BBC, using information provided by teachers and head teachers.
So far they have devised 82 scenarios - 29 for secondary schools, 23 for primaries and 22 for special schools.
These present various options which are then scored and fed into an ongoing progress measure.
It is part of a project to train middle managers in schools - called Leading from the Middle - run by the college's Paul Hammond.
The virtual school itself is stylised, with cute little cartoon-like characters.
These have different genders and ethnicity but are deliberately not too lifelike: an attempt to do that resulted in objections to the Lara Croft-like appearance of one of the teachers.
"We call it a sandpit for teachers," Mr Hammond said.
"We wanted the materials to be particularly authentic and realistic in terms of the scenarios, but we can't do every detail of what schools are actually like."
So the main atrium has no cola cans on top of the lockers or old plimsolls in the corners.
But he said the program produced "chuckles of recognition" from the teachers who first tried it.
"They say it is quite amusing but they like the scenarios and they say it's not trivial."
Instances of what Paul Hammond calls "noise" interrupt the serious stuff.
So while players are mulling over their strategies to deal with, say, the under-achievement of ethnic minority boys, a window will pop up saying a child has been sick in the corridor.
When something lands in your in tray, the main options are to deal with it yourself or delegate it to other staff - either of which will have consequences for everyone's health and morale.
And the decisions have cumulative effects.
You might suddenly realise that you have been expecting too much of a colleague who is having problems coping, perhaps because they have not been adequately trained or given the necessary resources.
Trying out the virtual school, I found my fondness for the "delegate this task" button rapidly led to long faces in the staffroom.
BBC education correspondent Kim Catcheside reported "a short but manic career at the top."
"As I ended my virtual year all my staff were happy, my leadership team very happy and behaviour in the classroom seemed to have vastly improved," she said.
"However I was working an unsustainable 93 hours a week to achieve this.
"I attempted to reduce my hours by returning as another person, but quickly got bored with the same old problems coming up again and again.
"Arguments over who washes the cups in the staffroom led to immediate burnout and early retirement."
For our colleague James Westhead the high point - in the absence of fast action chases or punch-ups - was the pupil being sick in front of him.
He chose the "Ignore it" option, "thereby contributing to the gradually developing sense of unease, deteriorating morale and plummeting results in my school.
"My in-tray was piling up with new guidance from the QCA and a host of other acronyms. Fortunately I found they were easily dealt with by clicking on a big red bin.
"Of course it was the way I handled the big questions that really mattered - raising achievement among boys, dealing with problem new teachers and disruptive pupils.
"As I didn't understand most of the questions I adopted a completely random approach to the solutions offered by the computer.
"Curiously I discovered as time passed - three terms in a couple of hours - my random approach was beginning to work: pupil achievement was up, morale was high and teaching staff were happy."
"The only problem was that apparently I - as head of department - was working a 97-hour week and near to collapse!"
Because the scenarios are written to a formula they can easily be changed.
So if there is a development in the real education world in the news on a Monday - problems with A-level results, say - it could be in the program before the end of the week.
"Schools are complex and often chaotic environments where decision-making can be a nerve-wracking prospect," said the head of the leadership college, Heather Du Quesnay.
"But if schools are to keep improving and changing for the better teachers, and especially those with leadership responsibilities, need to be bold, courageous, and willing to take risks.
"Virtual School provides the ideal safety net allowing users to build up their confidence as leaders".
The game is still in development. In its full version it is likely to be reserved for teachers taking part in the college's training programme, the first 200 of whom began their course on Monday.
A cutdown version with just the bits of "noise" might be made available on the college's website in the new year.
Now, there's a wasp in the room. Ignore it? Kill it?
Oh and an angry parent to see me...
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