The Issue - School 'fiction' - Teacher loses sacking claim over racy novel

25th March 2011 at 00:00
Writing about school life while you are still in the profession can be a dangerous game, even if the events you describe are 'true'

Write what you know - that is the mantra of successful authors. And a number of former teachers, such as Waterloo Road creator Ann McManus, have clearly drawn inspiration from their time in the classroom. But writing about school life while you are still in the profession is altogether a more delicate matter.

When Calderdale-based teacher Leonora Rustamova published a novel on the internet featuring characters from her class, she learnt that artistic licence has its limits. Stop! Don't Read This! has been described as "racy" and "risque", and when the school governors took a read they sacked Ms Rustamova. She recently brought a case of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal, but lost her claim.

The events of Stop! Don't Read This! were fictitious. But teachers who stick to the facts also risk falling foul of the GTC's code of conduct, requiring them to "demonstrate integrity" and "uphold public confidence in the profession". In 2009, for example, trainee teacher Adam McCance was given a two-year reprimand after he wrote disparaging comments in a blog about pupils and teachers at his school.

All of which explains why many staffroom scribes prefer to remain anonymous. "It's the sensible option if you value your job," says "Frank Chalk", whose blog about school life has had a million hits (frankchalk.blogspot.com). Having originally planned to write under his own name - "I assumed no one would read it" - he is now grateful for his secret identity.

It is also important to protect the identity of colleagues and pupils you write about. If not, you could end up facing a libel charge. "You have to be careful," says Katharine Birbalsingh, the former deputy head who lost her job after making a speech at the Tory party conference. In her new book about school life, To Miss With Love, she says the incidents are real, but characters such as Miss Useless are composites of different teachers she has known down the years. "Legally, that's the only way to do it," she says.

But aside from the risk of law suits and the wrath of the General Teaching Council, there remains the issue of whether or not it is morally right for teachers to make public what goes on in the privacy of the class or staffroom.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower says it all depends on how sensitively the material is handled. "Teachers should be free to write about their professional lives because lots of people find that interesting," she says. "But they need to give a fair and responsible portrayal of the job."

Those thoughts are echoed by Francis Gilbert, whose career since his first book, I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here! shows that writing about school life openly and honestly needn't turn you into a pariah. "The school where I currently teach is very supportive of my writing, and they trust me not to embarrass them," he says.

THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND

- Never assume a blog will go unnoticed. It is not easy to remain anonymous.

- Libel laws apply on the internet, exactly as they would in a book.

- If you write fiction based on your teaching experiences, change key details to disguise the identity of your school.

- Section 8 of the GTC's code of conduct requires teachers to maintain the reputation of the profession.

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