School settings

16th March 2001 at 00:00
THAT'LL TEACH YOU! By Michael James. Recognition Publishing pound;6.99. From PO Box 243, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 0YE.

THE INSPECTOR AND THE SUPERHEAD. By Nigel Jepson. Minerva Press pound;10.99.

INSPECTING THE ISLAND. By Hylda Sims. Libertarian Education pound;7.99. Order from Seven-Ply Yarns. Tel: 020 8986 4854.

AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN. By Aimee Bender. Review pound;10.

Why do schools make such unsexy settings for novels? All human life is there, conflicts abound, and any staffroom can come up with a Dickensian array of rogues and eccentrics.

But it hardly ever happens. Try pitching a novel set in a school (at least one focusing on the teachers) to any publisher or agent and watch them scrabble to come up with an alternative - a meat-packing factory, say, or a Siberian gulag, or the offices of the local gas board.

This clutch of novels illustrates the problem perfectly. Between them, they offer a vivid array of sex, tension, abuse, violence, death, fire, riots and paranoia. Some tread the familiar ground of love overcoming problems, while others go for the bigger themes of human despair and redemption.

Either way, they ought to be gripping, but in the middle of all this high drama the essential smallness of school life seems to lurk in permanent ambush. No matter how hard an author works on fictional tension, sentences such as "Mark had phoned his NASUWT representative following the arrival of the documents from the school", or "Although I was under no obligation in our feedback meeting to tell Mr Fry the grade I had awarded against him (it was in fact the lowest possible: 7) I could not be certain how he would react in the face of the criticism I was duty-bound to level against his teaching ability", do not make readers turn pages.

That said, That'll Teach You! will give any male teacher the shivers, being the chilling tale of what can happen when teenage grls decide to make mischief. The blow-by-blow account of the trial, painstakingly written, shows how such a legal case can unfold, while the ugly and violent memories that one of the accusers has of sexual abuse make unsettling reading.

The Inspector and the Superhead is what it says. Upright and professional Ofsted inspector Robert Maybank is led astray by charismatic new superhead Lauren Quist. Nigel Jepson knows whereof he writes, himself a qualified Ofsted chap. He is also married to Anna White, the head who brought The Ridings school in Halifax out of special measures. Both of them have said (TES, December 1, 2000) that their private life is less exciting than it appears in the book.

Another Ofsted inspector crops up in Inspecting the Island, subtitled "the Summerhill novel". At the thinly disguised "Coralford", students run the show and lessons are optional. Unbending inspector Jasper Bignold runs into former lover Charlotte and finds there is a lot more than he thought to kids running wild and free.

Hylda Sims, an ex-London teacher, obviously cares about educational issues and has created lively, realistic kids as a backdrop to the main events.

Cream of the crop has to be an invisible sign of my own (subtitled "love, maths teachers and impending madness"). It is less about school than about the unbalanced world of maths teacher Mona Gray, who eats soap and buys herself an axe for her 20th birthday, meanwhile hanging on to numbers in all their many forms and functions as a hedge against chaos, disease and disaster.

The novel sweeps you along on its wackiness, and makes you care about its outcome.

So perhaps there's hope for the school novel. But only, it seems, if would-be authors learn to keep their school lore strictly in check, while pushing out the boat when it comes to crafting great characters embarking on real quests and journeys.


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