When comparisons can be murderous

During the summer months I have a chance to catch up on one of my favourite leisure activities, reading crime fiction. It is not entirely a holiday, however, as there are some striking parallels between the worlds of crime writing and education. In both cases it is often difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys: motives can be as complex and hard to detect in professional life as in fiction; and there is no certainty that justice will be done in either case.

There are, of course, many different types of crime novel. First, there are the "police procedurals" which tell the story from the perspective of the principal investigator. The central character is typically over-worked, has problems at home, is plagued by a stupid boss who, in turn, is subject to political pressure to come up with a solution, whether the correct one or not. It would not take a super-sleuth to work out the similarities with education here. Two of my favourite writers in this genre are Donna Leon, whose novels are set in Venice and, a recent discovery, Henning Mankel, who uses southern Sweden as his setting.

Second, there are the country house or small community stories, where the challenge is to identify the criminal from a limited cast of suspects. Many of Agatha Christie's novels fall into this category. The protagonists usually have a dubious past, and conceal personal enmities and rivalries behind a facade of social charm and polish.

Sound familiar? Comparisons might be drawn with the "policy community" of Scottish education, that select band of the great and the good who seek to shape our professional destinies. Although they support each other in many ways, it is not unknown for them to engage in a spot of behind-the-scenes back-stabbing. Personally, I have always favoured the stiletto in the chest - so much more honest and, if skilfully executed, liable to produce less blood on the carpet.

In the television productions of the Miss Marple stories - played to perfection by the late Joan Hickson - there was often a moment in which she asked a character contemplating a particular course of action, "Are you sure that is wise?" Invariably that character became the next victim of the murderer.

Here the parallel with education breaks down a little. Policy-makers are frequently asked by teachers if a proposed innovation is wise but, instead of being bumped off, they are more likely to enjoy promotion.

A third significant category is the psychological thriller. There are many successful practitioners of this genre - Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid and the Glasgow writer, Denise Mina, spring to mind. A common pattern is that a series of grisly crimes is committed by a seriously disturbed personality who leaves a "signature" at the scene, a revealing set of clues that enables a psychological profile to be drawn up.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Scottish education is run by a bunch of deranged psychopaths but some certainly give a good impression of being several sandwiches short of a picnic. As for the crimes, it would be instructive to take a major policy initiative - such as Higher Still - and analyse it in terms of the clues which prefigured the SQA debacle of 2000.

Finally, there is the academic crime novel as practised by an earlier generation of writers, such as Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin. Witty dialogue, literary references and a sharp eye for the petty snobberies of university life are features of this genre. There is generally no shortage of deserving victims. But perhaps at this point the similarities between fiction and reality are becoming uncomfortably close.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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