The foyer of the Hugh Young Community School looks like the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. It is vast, and empty save for an abstract sculpture that resembles a giant blob of bubble wrap. A girl in combat trousers and a crop-top approaches. "It's an original David Mach," she explains confidently. "Quite a statement, don't you think? Oh, sorry, I'm forgetting my manners. Finola Cribbins, Year 10. I'm on reception this morning. Can I help you?" She stretches out an arm and I shake nervously.
"Hello, er, Finola. I'm Charity. Charity Casement. I'm, er, here for an interview for the history post. Quite a place you've got here, and it's lovely to see students' work on display to the public." There's a short silence and then Finola, who's 14, explains to me that David Mach isn't a pupil but a renowned sculptor who specialises in temporary works sited in public spaces that satirise the commodification of the modern art world.
What am I doing here? We don't really do art at St Brian's, and the only statements we have are from the LEA's special needs panel. And what kind of school leaves pupils alone in the main office? The last time this was tried at St Brian's, when a superbug had laid low the entire admin staff, the result was the arrival of 25 pizzas, three ambulances and a fire engine before lunchtime.
I'm losing my nerve, but I quickly remind myself why I'm here. After a heavy night in the Horseshoes last month, Tiziana Fausti, our dazzlingly glamorous supply teacher, convinced me that St Brian's was a dead end and tipped me off about Hugh Young, a good school with an enviable catchment that was looking for bright young things like me.
But I feel on edge. Is it the alien quietness, the scrubbed cleanliness of the place, or am I just spooked by this scarily well-adjusted teenager, with her neat hair and even-toned skin? As I sip my cappuccino and listen to Finola's discourse on David Mach, I can't help thinking about the giant plastic hamburger that sits in the front entrance at St Brian's, courtesy of our sponsor, Mr Burger.
I flick through the Hugh Young prospectus, a blur of impressive-looking logos: Investors in People, Beacon school, Artsmark, Sportsmark, Excellence in ICT, School of the Future... There are quotes from the most recent inspection. Hugh Young is an "outstanding", "cutting-edge" school. St Brian's is currently in special measures.
"Ms Casement! Thanks for coming." I leap up and see Piers Johnson standing in front of me. I recognise him from a television programme I saw about superheads. "This is an exciting time in the development of the school," he gushes. At St Brian's, this would mean the cistern in the boys' toilets was finally being repaired. At Hugh Young it means the school is getting a new sports arena and an astronomy suite.
I take a test lesson with a Year 9 group on naval battles of the Second World War. There are no interruptions, and no one hits anyone or throws up.
Next I am interviewed by a panel of pupils. "What would you say to those who believe that Fukuyama was right, that we've reached the end of history?" asks one. "I'd say that history ends when the bell goes!" Someone titters.
As Finola, who I now notice is worryingly thin, shows me out, I decide I'm not quite ready to join the Stepford Wives.
Next week: Half-term havoc