6th June 2003 at 01:00
Notes on a Scandal

By Zo Heller; Viking pound;14.99

"St George's", the north London comprehensive created for Zo Heller's novel, is not such a bad place to work despite unruly pupils and a "progressive bully" of a head who makes his staff fabricate reports that will cover him in glory. Some teachers have time to take lunch off the premises in an Italian restaurant; others spend afternoon break reading"paperback editions of the lower sort of fiction".

Sheba Hart, whose affair with a pupil is the scandal of the title, is the only member of staff seen to teach anything. Sheba, in her first job at 41, is a pottery teacher blissfully free from curriculum constraints, marking and paperwork. In fact St George's is a strangely paper-free workplace for those who have not been saddled with one of the head's reports.

Despite being new to teaching (after training she was diverted into marrying her art school lecturer and bringing up a Down's syndrome son and a sourpuss daughter), Sheba seems to have escaped the demands of the induction year. There's no department head or mentor to advise her on classroom management and teacher-pupil relationships. Her self-appointed mentor is Barbara Covett, a lonely and troubled older colleague who eventually betrays Sheba and effectively becomes her jailer, and who writes down the account of Sheba's doomed liaison with 15-year-old Steven Connolly in Year 11 for the reader to share.

Barbara is head of history ("the most senior teacher in the history faculty", as she puts it) and regards herself as her colleagues'

intellectual superior, but, unlike Sheba, she draws no inspiration or sustenance from her subject, in fact she never mentions it. She dislikes children, scoffs at "do-gooding fantasies" of "making a difference", and barely endures her work. Yet she has no life outside school, and a succession of intense friendships with female colleagues have ended in tears and injunctions. It's through her obsessive analysis of the small world of the staffroom - its cliques, alliances, gossip and pretensions - that St George's at last rings true.

It's worth suspending any disbelief you might feel in the institution for this compassionate and fast-paced tale of a well-meaning but narcissistic woman whose life is destroyed by an error of judgment. The allegorically named Mrs Hart and Miss Covett are supremely well-drawn characters driven by passion and envy, and the nuances of their mutually dependent relationship underpin the novel. If Heller's concept of what teachers do all day is a little hazy, she is strong on human frailty - and that is more useful to a novelist.

Barbara is a social climber in ill-fitting shoes: all spite, snobbery and insecurity. She is both dazzled and repelled by the casual self-indulgence of the upper-middle-class Sheba's artistically chaotic household. Sheba assumes her older, single colleague will serve as a wise but unthreatening confidante in the mould of a lady's maid or companion. Her downfall comes not because she has sex with a pupil, but because she underestimates Barbara.

Both this unlikely friendship and Sheba's forbidden relationship with Steven, a working-class boy, are infused with class inequality and the resentment it causes. Steven appears to have been undamaged by the relationship and to have the upper hand in it at some stages, but his defensive awkwardness when Sheba visits his home hints at the power imbalance at its root.

By the time Steven's parents are called in by the head (it's satisfying to note that this is one report the loathsome man won't be able to delegate) the relationship is effectively over.

Heller represents the affair and its outcome as sadly inevitable: Sheba already accepts teacher-student relationships as the norm; she encounters Steven when she is adrift in her first job with no support, neglected by her pompous husband and worn down by family demands. Having been sheltered from the wider world, she is desperate to place her stamp on it. Steven and Barbara cross her path when she's at her most vulnerable.

The reader is encouraged to reject the self-righteous outcry of husband and media after the event, but there is room for a little more self-criticism on Sheba's part: she is doing a grown-up's job, but she does not behave like a grown-up. She does not seek advice until after she has started the affair, and then only from Barbara, whom she does not respect.

This novel won't encourage any more Shebas to embark on their destructive path, but it has a message even for those who would never dream of such a course: pupil relationships are a minefield, but if you really want to ruin your life, just make the wrong friends in the staffroom.

geraldine brennan

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