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Teachers measure pupils' skills yet object to taxpayers measuring theirs.

Once upon a time on a very cold night a very clever chap had a very bright idea. He was sitting in his little sod cottage, watching the kettle boiling on the stove when he suddenly thought, "I could use that steam to drive a machine and make things people can buy!"

So he did. He built a machine to make things. Then he built another, and another, and before you could say, "industrial revolution" he had a whole factory full of machines making things for people to buy.

But there was a problem with the machines or, more precisely, with the people putting steam in and taking things out. "They keep getting their hands caught in the contrapuntal effluvium, sir, just below the discombobulator, then being dragged to their death in a most unfortunate fashion," his foreman advised him while they were inspecting yet another machine that had ground to an unproductive halt.


"How can this be?" inquired the clever chap.

"They can't read the instructions, sir," mumbled his foreman. "For want of basic literacy, and nothing more besides, they have no appreciation of the danger what lies in store at the dawn of this great age your machines hath introduced."

And that, boys and girls, is why you're in school today, numb with boredom and sullenly resentful that you're compulsorily confined to a classroom, unable to do the wild, untrammelled things nature had in mind when it invented adolescents.

Blame it on the machines, or the shortcomings of the people operating them but, either way, boys and girls, that's the reason for the fine mess you're in. The whole massive, $9 billion edu-business began because the unlettered workforce of the industrial revolution couldn't decipher the operating instructions. "Then we must teach them to read," said the top-hatted worthies. "Let us build schools forthwith. What's good for the economy is surely good for the untutored child."

And here's an interesting fact, boys and girl, which you can check on Googlepedia. Right at the start, they had - avert your gaze and whisper the shameful words - performance pay. You see, once the Victorians had their schools up and writing, they had to work out which would continue and which weren't worth keeping, as the bishop said to the cathedral.

So what they did, boys and girls, is decide they would give money only to those schools that had actually taught their students how to read and write and cut funds for any that hadn't.

There you have it, another blot on history's stained escutcheon. Performance pay for schools, imposed by folk clearly not as clever as your wonderful teachers who have, quite rightly, dismissed out of hand the latest iteration of this vile notion.

As is often the case with such ill-advised ideas, this one's been proposed by an ordinary person, a politician, for heaven's sake, not someone fully in touch with the great complexities of education.

Happily, the Principals' Association is, and that august body was quick to condemn the scatterbrained idea of performance pay for teachers when it reared its ugly head this week. Performance pay doesn't sit well with the Principals' Association. They abhor it and consider it impossible to implement. "You cannot measure the performance of teachers," the principals say, with nary a top hat in sight. "That is a mystery beyond divination or the dubious competence of bureaucrats."

Unlike National Standards, which the principals know are useless, hopeless and ineffective, even where they haven't been introduced. Or charter schools, which the principals also know won't work. They know this. They do. They just do. They don't need to see a concrete proposal or anything of that nature. It simply will not work.

And neither will performance pay for teachers. Mean-spirited bean counters may be able to measure the performance of, let's say, airline pilots - not least by their ability to land a plane full of passengers - or rugby coaches, using indicators like how many games the Blues have actually won, or hairdressers - by the height of their bouffants - but the subtleties of teaching, and teaching alone, defy such a mechanistic approach. You can pay teachers, yes, but they cannot be measured.

No matter that 10 of the world's top scientists gave the same answer when the magazine, Scientific American put this question to them: "What was it that lit your spark and got you started?" To which they all replied, "A great teacher."

Bah! Humbug! Anecdotal puffery. What would these boffins know? They're not principals. Or teachers. They should keep their know-nothing noses out of education. Like politicians. And parents. Put the cash in, by all means, but, after that, butt out! Leave it to the experts. They know what they're doing.

And woe betide any outsider who tries to measure that. Keep Out are the operators' instructions. Education is one machine we dare not stick our hands in.