Do novelists have a duty to present state schools in a positive light?

Somewhat to my surprise, my new (and first published) novel, The Last Day Of Term, was reviewed on Front Row tonight together with a TV play,Double Lesson, and documentary, Classroom Secrets, both of which sound very good indeed. My novel, many years in the writing, is about a teacher who is accused of child abuse and effectively has one day, the last day of term as it happens, to clear his name.

Toby Young, considering all the spats I’ve had with him, was remarkably generous about the book, calling the dialogue “authentic” and saying that it was quite good, but was, in his view, a “Tory novel” in that it depicts a feral Afro-Caribbean gang, an ineffectual politically correct headteacher, and a state school (an Academy) in crisis. Judy Friedberg, of the Guardian, felt that it was a novel about standing up to bullies. Some of the teachers I know who’ve read it say that it’s a fairly accurate portrait of a school in crisis — but that these schools are rare. In the 1990s I taught in a couple of schools like this, and have known of schools like this in recent years through various journalistic and personal connections — though I must stress I feel they are the exception, not the rule.

Local Schools Network founder, Melissa Benn wrote a powerful comment in the Guardian recently when she said:

“From the tabloids to Waterloo Road to the bestselling fiction of Sebastian Faulks and Zoë Heller, local schools are too frequently portrayed as out-of-control hell holes, sustained by a jaded and self-interested teaching profession and a complacent liberal middle class.”

Melissa has got a strong point; fictional representations of school have been overwhelmingly negative. My novel certainly falls into this category. Inevitably, I feel conflicted about this one. I do think the media, on the whole, seriously misrepresents state schools as hell-holes — I blogged about the Mail doing so this week — but I would like to plead a special category for fiction. Perhaps just in the same way that no one who watches Inspector Morse or reads Agatha Christie believes that Oxford is choc-a-bloc with psychotic professors and English country villages are full of murderous old ladies, few people who read fiction about schools actually believe, in their heart of hearts, that all of them are full of the venal and despicable characters who populate the pages of Barry Hines’s Kes, Heller’s rather brilliant Notes On A Scandal or even my novel. A definite suspension of disbelief happens. Fiction demands drama and action, whereas non-fiction benefits from a genuine marshaling of the facts. There are, possibly, schools like the chaotic one I depict in The Last Day Of Term, but they are few and far between.

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Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing (fgipublishing.com) which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network, www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, www.francisgilbert.co.uk. He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

Categories Behaviour, My books, The Last Day Of TermTags, 2 Comments

2 thoughts on “Do novelists have a duty to present state schools in a positive light?”

  1. I agree. Its funny how people will accept crime novels which depict the acts of serial killers and monstrous criminal masterminds (who, with that level of ferocity are so rare as to be non-existant) with the remark that it’s “just fiction”, yet there is an occasional outcry over a similar exaggeration of reality in other types of fiction.

    I think it all comes down to what people think the book is trying to say. Crime is an established genre so people don’t think a crime novel is making a statement about policing or the town/city in which it is set. But novels about teachers in schools are rare enough by comparison that people seem to think that by writing it you are making a political statement instead of just telling a story. I guess enough people do use their novels as vehicles in that way that they aren’t entirely unjustified though.

    1. I suppose I wanted to use the backdrop of a school in crisis to foreground a picture of a teacher and pupil whose lives are in crisis. For me, my novel is about identity; the teacher, Martin Hick, wants to be promoted, wants to have that badge of professional status, while his high-powered wife wants him to give up his ambitions and look after the kids; the pupil, who has been excluded, wants his place at the school back. It’s really a domestic drama which uses crisis-hit school as a canvas on which to play out these issues.

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