The Minutest Detail

The salesman was very impressive. It was a hot afternoon and he was without his jacket, his tie also removed; the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up and the top two buttons were undone; but still he looked every inch the smart-thinking, smart-dressing, oil-slick salesman he was. Not only a salesman; he owned the company. He believed in the product so much, he said, that he did the selling himself. It was a very impressive presentation, and the staff, quietly cooking in their skins in the airless staff room, the visual buzz of the projector their only focus, were hooked. It was without question that they were going to sign up for the MicroButton™; the only question was how soon it would be implemented.

‘Let me explain exactly how it works, ladies. And sir,’ intoned Walker, always remembering Mr Token was in the room, always catering for that extra customer. Token was leaning back, his arms folded across his chest. Maybe he was not completely sold on the MicroButton™, but what did that matter? The senior management team were lapping it up.

‘Let me explain exactly how it works. On entry, at whatever age – be it Reception, be they Year Two, be it Year Six even, every child receives The Button. It is very simple to administer: you do not need – let me repeat that – you do not need any medical training whatsoever. You take The Implanter’ – and here he once again held aloft the silver-grey pen-like object – ‘and you place it against the temple. Anyone who has ever used an EpiPen® will be able to use an Implanter. You place it against the temple, having first made sure to load a Button into the chamber, and you simply squeeze the trigger here and, without the child ever knowing it has happened, The Button is implanted under the skin. It makes no mark, ladies and sir, it creates no raised indentation of any kind. The child will barely feel a thing – at worst the sensation is like a moderately severe ice-cream headache and which child hasn’t had one of those before? Yes, and survived it! The Button is now implanted and it begins to record all mental activity inside that child’s brain.’

A hand went up.

‘Yes, Madam?’

‘Do you mean it can read their thoughts?’ asked Mrs Sack. There was a little ripple of laughter and a sharing of amused looks amongst senior management.

‘No, Madam, I do not mean that. We are not in the realms of science fiction. All mental activity creates brainwave patterns, the firing of synapses and so on. Recently, scientists have managed to differentiate the sorts of brainwave recorded inside the mind and have classified them into five distinct types: the logical, the procedural, the mechanical, the creative and the redundant. The Button records and separates out the brain activity of each type. Using the MicroButton™ equipment allows you, Madam – any of you here – to analyse the type of activity going on inside each child’s head at any one time.’

Catherine Dinglesby turned around towards Sack and the rest of the staff. ’It allows us to monitor exactly how much each child is thinking during a lesson – and the quality of thought they produce,’ the Headteacher added helpfully.

‘Exactly, Mrs Dinglesby,’ simpered Walker. ‘Most schools, in my experience, are interested in the logical and procedural brainwaves. These are the most useful for any of us because they measure how we use our reasoning processes. If the logical pattern is in the highest percentage quartile when viewed upon the scanner, that means the subject is reasoning a lot and reasoning hard. In other words, they are thinking through a problem. If the procedural pattern scores highly, that means the subject is making practical application of their thoughts – they are solving the problem. The thinking and the solution go together, do they not?’

‘But sometimes,’ interrupted Mr Token in a voice weary with the knowledge that he was arguing a lost cause, ‘you don’t want logical thinking. Sometimes you need creative, lateral thinking to solve a problem.’

Walker did not miss a beat. ‘You can measure any type of brain activity you like, sir.’

‘Any type up to five,’ muttered Token.

‘I’m just telling you which brainwaves are the most popular for schools to measure,’ said Walker. ‘I’m not telling you how to use the MicroButton™. I am not a teacher, far from it.’ He smiled his ingratiating smile. Several of the female members of staff smiled back.

‘And you can read this information off any of these scanners?’ asked Mrs Turnem.

‘That is correct. The main scanner, of course, which I think you want to keep in the Deputy Head’s office, is that correct?’ A nod from Slump, and Dinglesby, too. ‘The main scanner shows all five brain patterns at once. The handheld scanners, which any teacher can have in their classroom to monitor brain use during the actual lesson and in direct response to their teaching, these show only one pattern at a time, so you have to switch between them, but they are measuring all five at once, of course. The Button sends out a Wi-Fi signal that can only be picked up by these scanners.’

‘What about the other brain patterns, what were they?’ asked Miss Prettybore.

‘There are five altogether, Miss. As I said, the logical and procedural do tend to be considered the most useful. However, there is also the creative, which I hope speaks for itself and answers your point, sir, the mechanical and the redundant. The mechanical registers highly when a subject is following a simple instruction – marching on the spot or copying information from the board, for example. The redundant is what I call the ‘couch potato’: it scores highly when the thought process serves no actual purpose at all.’

‘Like this session,’ thought Token to himself, but the thought went unexpressed.

Brian Token had long ago learned which thoughts were worth uttering and which were not. He had found out the hard way that it does one’s career – not to mention one’s peace of mind – no good whatsoever to be labelled a troublemaker; and the surest way to gain such a label was to express original opinions of any kind. Expressing opinions that ran counter to the prevailing mood of the senior management team was not to be recommended either. The hideousness of the MicroButton™ had caused Brian to temporarily transgress this unwritten rule, but only briefly. Even an invention as intrusive and offensive as the MicroButton™ could not make him entirely lose his senses.

Token had been a class teacher for eighteen years. He was never early to school, but never late. He never left too soon, nor stayed around too long. He never took time off, was never sick, nor did he take on unnecessary extra-curricular duties. He knew that, as the only male teacher on the staff, managing some sort of sporting activity was sure to fall to him, and sure enough it did (the football team was his responsibility), and he accepted this without complaint and he ran the football team with the barest minimum of success that was acceptable. When not in his classroom, he clutched a piece of lined paper covered in a furious, meaningless scrawl, and walked very fast with an air of purpose and slight annoyance, as if late for some important meeting for which he held the key document. The impression he created was so convincing that every other member of staff, including the Head, assumed he was one of the most driven, hardworking teachers in the building, and consequently did not trouble him with extra demands upon his time.

But if Mr Token was seething with barely concealed contempt during this particular meeting, the rest of the staff were either bewitched by Walker’s sales patter or beguiled by the possibilities of the MicroButton™. Slump, who felt a love for data that she never felt for actual, living humans, was in a kind of heavenly state of bliss. At the back of the room, with a self-satisfied grin spread across his face, was Mr Barnaby Wilson-Grady, the governor who had brought the MicroButton™ to Silver Lake.

Wilson-Grady, having retired after long service as a detective sergeant with the metropolitan police, had done what any self-respecting, middle-aged man would do: he had moved to a small town, become a local councillor for a moderately right-wing party and begun trying to make a name for himself. When one of his former contacts mentioned that his company had developed a pupil-tracking system, Wilson-Grady pricked up his ears and paid attention. He was still an ambitious man and there was currently a vacancy for chair of governors at Silver Lake Academy. As a local councillor, Barnaby found it easy to have himself co-opted onto the governing body and now, just a few weeks later, here he was, presenting the school with a state-of-the-art tracking system opportunity. As long as the implementation of this system went smoothly, Barnaby Wilson-Grady could see no obstruction to his becoming the new chair of governors. His only rival, Mildred Grimble, could never hope to compete with this.

The next step for the MicroButton™, after its enthusiastic reception at the staff meeting, was to be accepted by the parents. It might be thought that this would present greater difficulties for Walker and his product, but the opposite turned out to be the case. For a start, the parent information evening at which Walker demonstrated the MicroButton™ was poorly advertised and poorly attended. Of those parents that did attend, the only worries expressed were about the possible physical harm to their children, and these were soon allayed when Walker demonstrated The Implanter on Mrs Forbes, a parent of a Year Three pupil, who found it perfectly harmless and even a little ticklish. The fact that the school would soon be collecting data on every thought their offspring had was of no concern to the parents. Indeed, many of them thought it would be a jolly good way to stop their kids wasting their time with daydreams and suchlike nonsense. In any case, for the first term, the device was only to be used with one class of children, as a sort of pilot scheme, so any problems would be limited in their effect.

Mr Token was greatly surprised to find the following day that it was his class that had been selected as the guinea-pigs for the MicroButton™. He had assumed one of the high-flying younger teachers would have leaped at the opportunity, and indeed they would have, but it was not to be. Ironically, it was Brian’s habit of walking around school looking busy that had impressed itself on Mrs Dinglesby’s mind. Such a man, she thought, would welcome the chance to be busier still, analysing the data of his children’s thought processes. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but having spent so much time creating the illusion of purposeful activity, Token was hardly in the position of being able to deny his love of such activity just now.

And so it was that thirty eight year-olds had a tiny microchip implanted inside their brains to record their mental processes. Brian was presented with a handheld scanner (which he had to be shown how to use several times as his attention had wandered during the staff meeting) and the main scanner was set up in an especially sanctified corner of the Deputy Head’s office. The children, oblivious as to what was going on, paid little attention. The staff were on tenterhooks, however, eagerly awaiting the daily printouts of eight year-old minds.

In her office, Deputy Slump stared at the screen of her new toy, her senses tingling with anticipation. With a trembling finger, she pressed the power button and waited. Within seconds, five horizontal lines, each a different colour, appeared on the screen. Above them was a child’s name, the first name in the register: Ali Ammasi. Ali was a clever boy, she knew, always in the top few per cent of the class for every subject. Token was teaching maths. Sure enough, the horizontal lines that represented logical and – oh, joy! – procedural thinking began to rise sharply upwards, while the creative and redundant lines sank and the mechanical produced a few wobbly surges, whenever Ali was writing the date or copying a sum from the board. This was marvellous, thought Slump, as the lines gradually moved across the screen to indicate the passing of time. Absolutely marvellous.

Moving on from Ammasi, Slump worked her way through the register, making a note of each student’s relative scores. Token seemed to be delivering the goods this morning: most of the children had high scores on logical thinking and quite a few on procedural as well. Only little Daisy Phillips was scoring more highly on creative than any other measure. Slump leaned across to her computer mouse and clicked a button on the screen. In the classroom, Token’s handheld scanner buzzed at him. Slump sat back in her chair and watched, just as Mrs Dinglesby entered the room.

‘Wait a minute, children,’ said Mr Token, wondering why the scanner was buzzing at him. ‘We’ll go through this problem in a little while. Have a go at the next one if you have finished.’ As his class obediently went about their business, Token glanced at the screen of the scanner. A message flashed at him in yellow writing upon a black background shaped as an envelope with the flap open. It said, ‘Miss Slump directs your attention to Phillips, D.’ Scratching his head with one hand, Token used the other to press a button that was flashing beneath Slump’s message. Doing so brought up Daisy Phillips’s creative screen. To his horror, Brian saw the line was almost poking out the top of the scanner. Daisy Phillips was being creative in his maths lesson! What on earth was she doing?

Back in the office, the Head was intriguing. ‘How is it going?’ she asked.

‘It’s absolutely brilliant,’ enthused Slump. ‘I can monitor the progress of every child’s brain pattern in the absolute minutest detail with this. It’s like having a mental microscope on every one of them. Don’t worry, Catherine, we’ll soon see a marked rise in standards, believe you me.’

‘I’m very pleased to hear it.’

‘Mr Wilson-Grady really should be congratulated for bringing this to us.’

‘Yes. I have the feeling Mr Wilson-Grady may have ulterior motives.’

‘You think he wants the chair of governors post?’ Dinglesby nodded. ‘But you had that earmarked for Mrs Grimble, didn’t you?’

‘Precisely. Mildred knows the school, she understands how we do things here. Barnaby is very nice, but he’s rather too keen on introducing change. Change is the last thing we want. Unless it’s change that I bring about.’

‘Quite so.’ Slump felt she had to be careful what she said. She owed her position in the school to Catherine Dinglesby’s favour. It would be a mistake to publicly disagree with her immediate superior. Yet she was, she felt, almost in love with the MicroButton™ and all that it allowed her to do. Already her fingers were itching to check Daisy Phillips’ creative line. She wished Mrs Dinglesby would hurry up and leave. What did she want, anyway? Yet Slump need not have worried, as the Headteacher’s next comment made clear.

‘Of course, the MicroButton™ is a wonderful addition to our pupil tracking system and we must reward Mr Wilson-Grady somehow. But perhaps not by making him chair of governors.’

This gave Slump the opportunity she wanted.

‘It certainly is wonderful, Catherine. I can not only monitor, but directly affect, every child’s level with this piece of equipment. Once the staff realise the full extent of its powers, there’ll be no stopping them. Well, some of them, certainly.’

‘Yes. And I wonder if you have also realised the power this gives us over staff development?’

‘Um … I’m not sure I have.’

‘Well, if staff can now directly control what the children think about, there’s no excuse for anyone failing to reach their target, is there? Not only can we identify which children are not paying attention or working hard enough, but …’

‘Oh, my goodness!’ exclaimed Slump, her excitement levels rising rapidly. ‘We can use this as a way to hold staff to account, too!’

‘Of course. That’s the true beauty of it,’ purred Dinglesby; and it was in that instant, Slump reflected afterwards, that she first truly appreciated the difference between a Deputy and a Head. ‘Not only can we use pupil thought patterns to measure teacher performance levels, we can give all of them – pupils and staff – higher targets to reach in the first place. After all, there are no excuses now, are there?’

Slump beamed her admiration at Catherine Dinglesby, who, as she stood between Slump’s chair and the window with the morning sun streaming through it, seemed to be crowned with a golden halo.

Before he even reached her table, Mr Token could see why Daisy’s creative level was so high. Instead of writing down the sums from the board and finding the answers, she had drawn and coloured in a picture of a daisy. Again. It was, he knew, this little girl’s habit to write and draw her name in such a way whenever she felt bored or disengaged. Her maths partner, Nigel Bradshaw, had abandoned the pretence of working with her (Token’s subtle way of forcing Daisy to engage) and was solving the sums on his own. With the little orange line on his hand-held scanner seeming to reach crisis point, Token furiously tore a sheet of completed sums from the astonished Nigel’s book and slapped it down on the table under Daisy’s nose.

‘There!’ said the frantic teacher. ‘Copy those, Daisy! Quick!’

As the compliant child laid down her yellow crayon and picked up her pencil, Token (in the classroom) and Slump and Dinglesby (in Slump’s office) watched her creative line sharply fall and her mechanical line begin to rise. As soon as he had checked the last problem with the rest of the class, Brian returned to Daisy’s side and patiently explained to her how to work through each problem. In the office, the Head and Deputy watched the child’s logical and procedural scores slowly start to climb.

Within a few weeks, the pilot scheme was declared a great success. Levels of achievement within Mr Token’s class had shot up and a number of other staff were champing at the bit to have their own children implanted with The Button. Before the scheme could be rolled out across the school, however, Slump wished to hold another staff meeting about The MicroButton™, to share in detail the results in Token’s class and her own, not insignificant, role in achieving those results.

Brian Token could often be found at break and lunch these days, no longer marching hurriedly up and down the stairs and around the building with a sheet of paper clutched in his hands. Now he was more likely to be seen yawning by the coffee machine, or sitting and staring ahead, quivering slightly, in the corner of the staff room. Since the introduction of the scanner into his life, Brian had had not a moment’s respite. He had to spend almost every minute in the classroom checking every brain pattern of every child (one hundred and fifty little lines in all), monitoring each one for signs of unacceptable change. If he didn’t keep his eyes glued to the scanner in this way, a harsh buzz from the machine told him that Slump had spotted another infringement of acceptable thought and was directing him to do something about it. No time was left for him to discuss their work with the children, which meant all discussion had to be done in written form in their exercise books, taking a minimum of three hours every evening. All lessons had to be ones that could be flashed up on the Interactive White Board – rows of sums, or grammar exercises, or cloze passages to complete – so that Token would be free to pay attention to the electronic pulses inside the children’s heads. The extra work and stress that this involved was the unspoken consequence of the MicroButton™’s success. It was the elephant in the room. Unfortunately for Token, due to lack of sleep and a certain prescription medication he was taking, it was not the only elephant he had started to see in the room.

Then, the day before the big staff meeting, something happened.

Little Carly Miller, a moderately average girl in Mr Token’s class, was eating her packed lunch with her best friend, Keeley Simple. She was tucking into a tuna sandwich on brown bread, when the two girls became aware at the same time of a distinctive smell. It was the smell of burning.

‘Is there a fire somewhere?’ said Keeley.

‘It really seems like it,’ replied her friend. ‘Can you see anything?’

Keeley turned her back and looked around behind her. ‘No. Can you.’

‘No. But I can definitely smell it.’

Then, just as Keeley turned around again, Carly turned her own head and the back of it came into Keeley’s view. There, just to one side, and underneath her hair slide, was a small but very definite column of smoke.

‘Aargh!’ screamed Keeley. ‘Your hair is on fire!’

Children at Silver Lake Academy, like those at every other school, were very used to fire drill. They routinely tripped out of their classrooms and onto the school playground (picking their way through various sculptures that dotted the place) and listened as their Headteacher explained why they need to be faster and quieter next time. These drills were carried out according to the requirements of the law to keep children safe, no matter how much valuable learning time was lost as a result. What the children were never taught, however, was what to do if they discovered a fire, especially a fire in their best friend’s hair. And so it could come as no real surprise to anyone when Keeley Simple eschewed the idea of trying to stop the burning, or alerting anyone more responsible so they could do so, and instead started running around the lunch hall screaming and wheeling her arms in a way that reminded at least one lunchtime supervisor of ‘a demented windmill.’

It might be thought that a child with her hair on fire would be – to say the least – noticeable in a room full of other children, one that was supervised by staff whose very job title included the word ‘supervisor’. However, the children of Silver Lake were used only to looking at exercise books and Interactive White Boards (with the occasional motivational poster thrown in). They were not used to looking at each other’s hair or indeed at fires of any description. As for the lunchtime supervisors, they had had specific training on how to spot an uneaten sandwich hidden behind an empty crisp packet at the bottom of a lunchbox, but they had not had any training at all on recognising the sight of flames and smoke erupting from a child’s head. Therefore, it was only after a full minute of Keeley’s demented windmill behaviour before Carly’s burning hair was recognised for what it was. Carly herself had become aware of it only two seconds after Keeley, but her own screams and cries for help were rather drowned by the excessive screeching of her best friend. Thus it was that, by the time the fire was extinguished by the aid of a wet tea towel, very little was left of Carly’s hair and a rather large hole seemed to have appeared, like a burnt-out crater, in the side of her head.

It was, of course, the implanted button that had caused the conflagration. It appeared that, when overheated, it was liable to spontaneously combust, a drawback Walker had hoped – but only hoped, rather than conclusively proved – had been overcome. In fact, the device he had sold to Silver Lake via his good friend Barnaby was only a prototype and never should have been used. These facts were uncovered in the due course of time by the police. Three weeks after Carly Miller’s hair caught fire, Mrs Dinglesby sat in her office and forced a smile to crawl across her face as, once again, Inspector MacDonald entered the room.

‘Do sit down, Inspector. How nice to see you again.’

It was far from nice for Catherine Dinglesby. Nothing in the last few weeks could be said to have been nice. Although she had, for the most part, managed to deflect the hysterical parents of Carly Miller onto her Deputy, there had been no avoiding the obligatory visit to the hospital to sit at the bedside of poor little Carly herself. Luckily, the doctors had managed to conceal the worst of the scorch marks with a skin graft and her hair was growing back completely, so the outward scars would soon be gone. The psychologists, however, had said that it would take years for her to recover from the shock. At least she would be managing that recovery in someone else’s school: one small consolation for her disappointed Headteacher.

‘I’ve just come to let you know the results of our investigation, Mrs Dinglesby.’ MacDonald was a Scot, but he seemed to have abandoned his accent and only tinges of his Edinburgh upbringing could be detected in his voice. ‘You’ll be glad to know that I am not recommending any further action against the school or yourself.’

‘That is gratifying, Inspector,’ replied the Head, gamely concealing her joy behind an expression of vague concern. ‘Of course, it is little Carly that we are most worried for.’

‘Carly Miller is no longer your responsibility, Madam. As for Mr Wilson-Grady, I imagine he will soon be resigning as a school governor. In my view, the man is lucky to have escaped a jail term. He’s a disgrace to the police force.’

‘Yes, of course. Is no one to be prosecuted then, Inspector MacDonald?’

‘Oh yes, Ma’am. Mr Walker will face the full brunt of the charges. It was his company that developed the MicroButton (its trademark has been discontinued) and we have evidence that he failed to submit the product for the necessary safety tests before recommending it to his friend. He’s the one who will be going to prison. You’re in the clear, Mrs Dinglesby. As long as you’ve removed all those implants from the children’s heads, of course.’

‘All done, Inspector. It was a foolish scheme. I don’t know why my Deputy was so in favour of it. And I must thank you for keeping this whole business out of the press.’

‘Well, as I explained to Mr and Mrs Miller, I think it’s for the best. There’s no point in dragging down a good school because of one bad apple amongst the governors.’

‘No, indeed. I wonder, Inspector, if you have ever considered a role on the governing body yourself?’

‘No, thank-you, Madam. I’m far too busy.’

‘Oh well, never mind. Goodbye, Inspector.’

‘Goodbye, Mrs Dinglesby. And good luck. I understand you’re looking for a new chair of governors.’

‘Yes. Well, I’m sure we’ll find one.’

Catherine Dinglesby sat back in her swivel chair and turned towards the window, waiting for Inspector MacDonald to reach the car park and drive away. Only then could she allow herself to fully relax. Her mind returned to the day, two weeks earlier, when she had watched Barnaby Wilson-Grady through this same window as he left the school, never more to return. She didn’t miss him or regret what had happened. She felt nothing at all. Ice flowed through her veins, as it did through the veins of any headteacher worth their salt. There wasn’t any other way to be.

Inspector MacDonald opened the driver’s door of his four-door blue estate and got in. Mrs Dinglesby breathed a sigh of relief and slipped off her high-heeled shoes. They pinched her toes, did these ones; it might be time to buy a new pair. Through the window, she watched the Inspector as he pulled out of the car park, under the raised barrier, and out of sight.

‘Ah well,’ said Mrs Dinglesby, with just a trace of sadness in her voice. ‘Another one bites the dust.’