DO you believe in witchcraft? Are you willing to be convinced? If so, you should visit the Lancashire borough of Pendle. Its eponymous hill is infamous as the setting for the alleged activities of 11 witches in the early 17th century. Two of them were men. At trials in 1610, ten of the accused were found guilty and duly hanged.
These days, tourism flourishes on the back of the tragedy. There is a Pendle Witches Trail and even, in local hostelries, a Pendle Witches Brew. The stark and rugged beauty of Pendle Hill is as close as we get in Britain to Bram Stoker’s version of spooky Transylvania.
Now an educational initiative in the borough is building on Pendle’s tradition of magic spells. Its schoolchildren are to be given out-of-body experiences. They will be transferred to another world without ever having to vacate their classroom seat. This Harry Potter-style spell will be achieved via a kind of digital broomstick that comes in the form of a virtual-reality headset.
The destination for the magic is the world of work. Whether it be a bed manufacturer, a building firm or a bicycle parts factory, the new witchcraft has it covered. No need any more for ‘work experience’ to mean pupils getting their hands dirty or being inconvenienced in any way. This is the kind of ‘addictive ‘trip’ with which many young people are already familiar. It is done from a stationary position.
So whether it is work experience in a restaurant kitchen or in a creative design workshop that you desire – Abracadabra! No kitchen hats or hard hats needed! What fun it is to enter the world of work through the world of magic!
I told the Sunday Mirror, which broke the Pendle story, that virtual-reality work experience is akin to dosing kids with educational cocaine.
Now, I am not so ‘head-in-the-sand’ not to see a role for digital technology in schools. A problem arises, however, when children are over-dosed. Across the globe our schools are amongst the biggest pushers of digital technology on to children. A few years ago the BBC reported on an OECD study that has had little, if any, impact on British schools:
The study shows ‘there is no single country in which the internet is used frequently at school by a majority of students and where students’ performance improved’.
Among the seven countries with the highest level of internet use in school, it found three experienced ‘significant declines’ in reading performance – Australia, New Zealand and Sweden – and three more had results that had ‘stagnated’ – Spain, Norway and Denmark.
The countries and cities with the lowest use of the internet in school – South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan – are among the top performers in international tests.
The study did not gather a figure for the UK’s internet time in clashttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34174796s, but the UK has among the highest levels of computers per pupil.
Children, as well as many adults, are spending far too much time in the computer-generated world of virtual reality. What the long-term consequence will be, we cannot be sure. Anecdotally, though, one hears of a diminution in social skills, a lack of empathy and mental heath issues.
The voice of sanity in this debate belongs to the eminent neuroscientist, Baroness Susan Greenfield. We obsess about climate change, she notes, whilst ignoring ‘Mind Change’ – the title of the book she wrote as long ago as 2014. She is ‘someone who uses her brain and wants us to use ours’, opined the Observer.
Mohammed Iqbal, leader of Pendle Council, has described the virtual reality work experience initiative as ‘fantastic’. What giddy vanity! So many within the educational establishment refuse to see that our schools are in danger of making children into digital technology junkies, ever more dependent on another ‘fix’. This is the need that Pendle secondary schools are feeding. ‘Virtual reality’ work experience may be compelling witchcraft but it is not real work experience at all.
Small wonder that the bosses of digital software companies in Silicon Valley, California, are increasingly sending their own children to schools that largely ban digital technology.