The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Love and Chalkdust
Paul Francis, 2000
Liberty Books (Much Wenlock Shropshire TF13 6JQ)
256pp paperback £8.00 ISBN 0-9520568-1-X
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2001
JL Carr's book The Harpole Report was first published in 1972. Frank Muir described it as 'the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read.' I was reminded of it as I read Love and Chalkdust by Paul Francis. Like Harpole, it follows a year in the life of a school, documenting the interpersonal tensions, the institutional crises and the bureaucratic nonsense with which schools and teachers are bombarded, now on a daily basis. Like Harpole, too, it does so with great humour and humanity. There are differences, though. Harpole is a report on the work of the temporary head of a village primary school and takes the form of extracts from his journal for the year, together with various other documents, including memos from staff members and comments by an older head.
Love and Chalkdust is a novel set in the Rab Butler Secondary School. Terry O'Mara, a young teacher who has just spent a term at a neighbouring school, the rival (and rather up-market) King Edward's, now has a temporary post at Rab Butler. Will he be successful? Will he obtain a permanent post at the end of the year? Will he want a permanent post at the end of it?
Rab Butler's Senior Management Team consists of Head Teacher Colin Parnaby, (who spends most of the year trying to decide whether to retire), and his deputies Rod Spencer and Chris Macdonald. Rod's priorities are school security and marketing, having a dig at Chris and trying to make sure he's in with a chance if Parnaby does decide to go. Chris Macdonald is more interested in education and equal opportunities, having a dig at Rod and trying to make sure she's in with a chance if Parnaby does decide to go. The row about Rod Spencer's new school gates (which Chris Macdonald had known nothing about until they appeared) and the hilariously detailed arguments about how they are to be kept locked, will strike a chord with anyone who has ever worked in a school. This is just one example of the problems the two deputies cause Colin Parnaby. His usual strategy seems to be to interview them alternately - and agree with both of them!
One of Chris's responsibilities is personal and social education. In the light of government diktats on the subject, she views her aim as being 'to put the children off sex and drugs without admitting the existence of homosexual attraction, extra-marital sex or pleasant sensations from drugs.' All this, 'without offering an opinion of any kind, other than a blind, passionate faith in the unique perfection of the married state, a faith which for Chris was not borne out by experience; neither by her own, nor by the parents of pupils with whom she came into contact. Still, that was the politics of education: never mind reality, feed the myth.'
The book is full of many other delicious comments about the state of education today. A teacher reads 'another glossy account of the government's latest triumph in education policy.' An Ofsted inspector says of the lay inspector's role, 'you had to have at least one inspector who didn't know anything.' Terry tells a student who can't attend his lesson because he's got to help Rod Spencer with his video marketing the school, 'Ah, marketing! Well I can see how that must take precedence over anything so peripheral as lessons.' And of one of Rod's memos, about the National Curriculum, a teacher comments, 'Rods' paper is a circular from the planet Zarg.'
Terry plans a special drama lesson, only to find that the hall is being used to paint scenery for the play and that a PE class has to come in because it's pouring with rain outside. There's an argument about the new traveller children Rod Spencer has recruited. Chris Macdonald wants them thrown out but Rod insists they keep them on the roll until after Form 7, then 'ditch them if you must.' Dale and Muptaz, two Year 11 students, start up a business selling fake burglar alarms and drum up custom by organising some local house-breaking, thus demonstrating a level of entrepreneurialism of which Thatcher could have been proud.
And so the year rolls on. 'July began with a heatwave. Second half of summer term, no year elevens in school, exams almost over and holidays in sight. A few year tens strutted their stuff, practising for next year, but no-one was very impressed. There were clear skies, bright sunshine and a warming glow, as assignments gave way to assignations and the serious work of tanning got under way. By tacit agreement, the demands of school shrivelled in the heat, homework became a rarity, and a sense of exhausted well-being spread almost everywhere.'
Love and Chalkdust is a brilliant portrayal of the life of just about any school, as funny and true as Harpole was in its day. And it has some serious messages about the nature of education, without ever becoming preachy. The characters are well-observed and the dialogue - and it's almost all dialogue - is well written. It would make a great TV drama.
I won't spoil the ending by telling you whether Colin Parnaby finally decides to retire, nor whether Terry O'Mara decides to stay in teaching and is offered a permanent post. Read Love and Chalkdust and find out for yourself!