David Gribble first taught at traditional independent schools like Optimo, the institution at the centre of this satirical novel, in the 1960s; he later moved to Dartington and to Sands school, run by children in partnership with staff, before writing Real Education: varieties of freedom, on alternative ways of running schools.
He has set the story in the mid-1990s, indicating that he believes much of what has made boarding school hard for children through the centuries remains: the hierarchy of oppression (in the book, the housemaster beats the head of house, the head of house beats the older boy, and the older boy bullies the younger boy, who pulls the wings off a moth); the lack of privacy; smug leadership; intolerance for anyone who questions authority; and compliant or unconcerned parents.
In the book, pupil rebellion builds after a withdrawn third-former, Andrew Botting, drowns in mysterious circumstances and the school refuses to investigate or allow mourning. But the reprisals orchestrated by deranged headteacher Brandon and no-hoper staff topple into violence.
Some sharp dialogue hints at the author's roots in the Cambridge Footlights of the 1950s, with potential for Radio 4 comedy. Gribble heads his chapters outlining the staff's worst failures with perky phrases from the prospectus such as "A wide range of outdoor activities" and "Effective supervision of free time". But his serious points suffer from sledgehammer delivery and an increasingly unlikely plot.
Despite occasional references to techno music, laptops and mobile phones, Optimo is frozen in the heyday of the school story. The pupils never use computers for school work, or phone or email their parents; Botting's high-achieving and results-driven parents don't have a mobile phone, so Brandon has to write to tell them their son has died when they do not reply to an answerphone message. Most unlikely of all, when Brandon is handed a carrier bag full of marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine (the school's trade in "toiletries" is a running joke), he asks his wife to identify the contents.
The fictional world is intended as an extreme version of reality, but not all of it works. Stricter editing would have removed some of the distractions from Gribble's outrage and acid wit.