Thank God you came!

11th April 2003 at 01:00
Ahead of the Class: how an inspiring headmistress gave children back their future. By Marie Stubbs. John Murray. pound;16.99.

Peter Wilby detects melodrama in Marie Stubbs's account of success against the odds

We have here a script to make film-makers drool. A headteacher is stabbed to death at the gates of a tough inner-city school. The pupils are out of control and the school is shut for two weeks and condemned by the government regulator. Closure looms. Shots of grim school corridors, with bare walls and drifting litter; outside, under slate-grey skies and looming tower blocks, teenagers with pinched faces slouch home against a biting wind.

Cut to snow-capped Scottish mountains and happy family scenes before a log fire. Grandma, a retired headmistress, is called to the phone. This is no ordinary grandma; she is newly blonde and glamorous, Glaswegian, and, best of all, titled. A shocking request. Will she come out of retirement and turn a school around - in four terms? Of course she will. There wouldn't be a film otherwise.

Our heroine rings two deputies from her former school. They join her.

Nobody seems to talk about pay. The brave trio suffer numerous setbacks, but never themselves make a mistake, or at least none that is mentioned in this book. Grandma is, as headteachers are required to be in films, eccentric. She appears before parents chewing gum, her male deputy in tow wearing a baseball cap. This is to make the point that chewing gum and wearing baseball caps are not appropriate in schools.

Grandma asks a jolly Catholic priest called Father George to help out. He says, as priests must do in films, "it's God's will". Grandma herself is given to moments of spiritual contemplation, which may be accompanied by celestial strings.

Cut to the villains. Some lurk in the diocesan education offices, plotting against grandma. Others sit in a staffroom corner, grumbling and glaring.

Ofsted returns, amid almost unbearable suspense. You're out of special measures! Grandma kisses the inspector. Staff whoop for joy. The man from the diocesan offices slinks off, unsmiling. It conveniently being spring, trees bud and blackbirds sing. Credits roll. Tears flow - at least mine did, and I only read it.

I have changed a few details (scriptwriters do), but not many. I do not wish to be over-cynical. This is in many ways a brilliant book: moving, funny, vivid, it is structured and written with the tautness of a thriller.

I hope all serving and aspiring heads will read it.

Yet I am suspicious of dramatised accounts of real life, which purport to recall dialogue in detail. Everything is a little too pat. Having myself played a minor part in such dramatised non-fiction, I know how easily it can distort.

Lady Stubbs's book will inspire many teachers; but it may also infuriate because it will be used to imply that, if she can turn round an exceptionally difficult school in a year, others can too. But not many heads will get the support from their family that Lady Stubbs did (her daughters seem to have acted as unpaid adjuncts to the school staff); not many will have the contacts who can persuade Kevin Keegan and Cherie Blair to visit; not many will have the resources to appoint a full-time attendance officer; not many will take all that strain knowing that, after 17 months, they can return to an unusually affluent retirement.

Lady Stubbs did a magnificent job for the children of St George's. But I suspect her book, like the Bible from which she frequently quotes, is best treated as a work of myth and moral example.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman. To order your copy of Ahead of the Class by Marie Stubbs at the special price of pound;13.99 (normal rrp is pound;16.99), tel: 0870 121 0009 and quote offer code BSH002

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