A new book about an inner-city student is insightful, but must teachers always be the bad guys?
One of the biggest obstacles we face as teachers is society's view of our job and the effect we have on young people. This view is often the result of a person's own experience at school (usually outdated and shrouded by the mists of time) and of the media's portrayal of school life today (often sensationalised and inaccurate). With this issue at the forefront of my mind, I read Feral Youth by Polly Courtney with a critical eye.
When I read the blurb on the back of the book, images of Dangerous Minds and other "teacher changes the life of underprivileged youth" films flitted through my mind. Courtney tells the story of Alesha, an inner-city 15-year-old, who is guided and supported by one of her former teachers. But rather than being someone from her school, Alesha's "teacher" is actually her peripatetic piano tutor.
This important distinction does not stop the author embarking on a depiction of teaching and education as a whole, and it is here that I have some issues with the novel. Overall, it is a good read: nothing earth- shattering as far as the topic is concerned, but it is well-written and an interesting insight into the challenging world of poverty that some people in our society inhabit. It is hard to read in places - any book that requires a glossary is often more work than it's worth - but it rumbles along at a decent pace.
Yet there is a problem throughout in the depiction of education. The book portrays schoolteachers as uncaring and old-fashioned. And Courtney seems to suggest that school is irrelevant to these inner-city young people, and that life on the streets can be escaped without qualifications or even the ability to read and write.
This point of view supports the plot line but fails to represent the true nature of modern educational strategies for underprivileged children. Nor does it do justice to the huge efforts of many excellent teachers across the country, who try daily to emphasise the importance of education and qualifications to an often disenchanted and rebellious generation, particularly within inner-city communities.
What makes it all the more frustrating is that the character of the tutor is used to show schoolteachers in a worse light. The "guide" role could have been fulfilled by a person in any profession - that the writer chose a teacher seems to have been simply a way of explaining how the characters met.
In my opinion, changing the profession of the character would not have affected the quality of the novel, but it would have prevented yet another attack on the already bruised and battered education system, a system that could do with a more positive and supportive representation even from within the world of fiction.
Isobel Fuller is a drama teacher at Lingfield Notre Dame School in Surrey, England. Feral Youth by Polly Courtney is published by Matador and priced at pound;8.99.
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