Big school, small minds. The villain of Big School is one Michael Peniston, a new headteacher full of ideas for boosting his own career. For Peniston, that means Cats, Sats, and lots of stats, plus a new regime of inspecting teaching files ("we doan't call 'em 'mark bewks' any more", says one of the new young teachers, Jez from Bury) to put pressure on teachers he wants to dismiss.
His main target for dismissal is a charismatic 53-year-old English teacher, Sefton Demmler, who becomes a guru to the narrator Tim, a 28-year-old former career student trying to make himself grow up by getting a real job and sorting out his two-girlfriends-at-the-same-time problem. The head's Machiavellian plot to get rid of Demmler stems from the wickedly delightful way Demmler belittles him: "Why did you insist on addressing a room full of human beings as if they read computer manuals for pleasure?" Demmler's challenging of Peniston (except when his wit gives way to boorish obscenity) is one of the chief pleasures of an entertaining but unevenly written novel which could have done with more editing.
Thomas is a flamboyant writer who enjoys slinging around arresting metaphors but lets in a few cliches. Allowing his narrator no more eloquence than "the kids are great, though" when explaining why he stays with the job, and using phrases such as "played the goat", create dead spots in a lively novel. There is deft characterisation - of Jez, with her phonetically rendered accent, and Demmler, with his enigmatic power - alongside dismal sexist banter which does not reflect the way young male teachers talk in any of the schools I've worked in.
It is also a pity that the "great kids" are largely absent from a novel about staffroom politics and the narrator's insecurities. The reader has to take it on trust that Demmler is a charismatic teacher, and that the old days of casual planning and hands-off management better served the pupils, if the author's satirical barbs are to hit home. Fortunately there are enough nostalgic teachers such as myself around to accept it on trust.
Though I doubt if many non-teachers would understand why Cats and their associated bestiaries should make the blood boil, those still in the loop, or skidding out of it, should be entertained by a comedy aimed at seriously grumpy and disaffected teachers.
David Buckley teaches English part-time in Sheffield