Teacher on the Run: true tales of classroom chaos
By Francis Gilbert
Short Books pound;9.99
Books and films about teaching often leave no cliche unturned. Francis Gilbert's first book, I'm a Teacher Get Me Out of Here, was an account of three tough years in an inner-city London comprehensive. Like this book, it was based on Gilbert's experiences, but peopled with fictional characters.
Tim Brighouse, chief adviser for the London Schools Challenge (who himself challenges many of the cliches that we attach to education officials) read I'm A Teacher "in one jaw-dropping gulp" and pronounced parts of it "spellbinding" (TESFriday, March 5, 2004).
So on a recent Friday night I reached for Teacher on the Run, poured a glass of wine and prepared to be entertained. The book is based on Gilbert's optimistic move in the mid-1990s to a new school on the outer fringes of London, approached via streets lined with trees (and occasionally BMWs), which promised to be "paradise regained".
In the spirit of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and many other campus novels, the author casts himself as the hapless innocent in a world of larger-than-life characters. So Mrs Lee, head of English, ushers Gilbert to his classroom with words resonant of Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army: "I think you'll find everything running like a smoothly oiled, precision machine here."
Of course, what Gilbert finds is quite the reverse. His enthusiasm (fuelled by his vision of inspiring a generation to worship Keats) is chipped away by low-level disruption and defiance, but he survives until the holidays (and is still teaching in real life). All of which is entertaining, but not necessarily escapist if you're a teacher, and not very reassuring about the state of education if you're not. Like Channel 4's Teachers, it captures some of the essence of school life, but less provocatively and, in truth, less humorously.
In his favour, Gilbert can write: the narrative passes at a cracking pace and he occasionally turns in a memorable image. At other points the humour feels forced and overwrought. Take his delight at being asked to teach Thomas Hardy's poetry, a sign (he thinks) of a school with good academic standards: "I was absurdly and ridiculously happy. I felt like a prisoner from Colditz who had escaped and found a job in Toytown. I was a hard-bitten LA cop who had landed a job solving a murder with Miss Marple.
I was a heavyweight boxer who had been asked to fight in the featherweight division. I was in dreamland."
I also found the frequent subheadings ("The sad truth about action plans") and occasional footnoted mini-essays on grammar and group work something of a distraction. Perhaps it's a book designed to inform would-be teachers rather than simply to entertain them.
If your idea of escapism is a humorous account of people and events a little too close for comfort, then this is for you. Many of us who already know the world Gilbert is describing would rather escape well beyond the school gates and leave "true tales of classroom chaos" to rampage through our nightmares or, if we're unlucky, our weekdays.
Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk