That’ll learn ’em

19 September 2006
The Times and The Sunday Times

by Fran Abrams
Atlantic Books, £9.99; 272pp

by Phil Ball
Ebury Press, £10.99; 320pp

IT’S YOUR TIME YOU’RE WASTING : A Teacher’s Tales of Classroom Hell
by Frank Chalk
Monday Books, £7.99; 226pp

DOES SCHOOL REALLY make a difference? Do all those thousands of hours of children sitting in smelly classrooms listening to a frazzled adult explain this and that really improve their chances in life? In a ground-breaking study of the 1960s, John Holt claimed in his classic text, Why Children Fail, that school contributed significantly to their failure in life: they were too frequently criticised, often saw no purpose in what they were studying and spent far too much time waiting around learning nothing. According to some research, pupils spend approximately half of their time waiting, and scarcely one tenth of their lives in school.

Perhaps it is not surprising that schools make very little impact upon some children. And yet, miraculously, recent evidence suggests that good schools can transform lives.

Fran Abrams, in Seven Kings: How it Feels to be a Teenager, sets out to prove that the school manages to lift the pupils she tracked for a year out of their fairly miserable social destinies. She sees that this ethnically diverse comprehensive in outer London is changing lives for the better and that its pupils will be the new middle class. At the end of the book, she writes: œSeven Kings . . . can tell us something about the future of Britain, of how our urban professional class will change and grow.

Abrams is an experienced journalist, able to paint many vivid, dramatised pictures of the home and school lives of her pupils, intersplicing them with teachers’ perspectives. There is Ruhy, whose family are refugees from Iran, and who thinks in Farsi at home but in English at school; there is Jemma, of Indian and South African parentage, who is obviously very bright indeed, achieving an A in statistics GCSE and taking 11 more.

Perhaps most indicative of the spirit of the whole school is Perin, a disabled student who is studying physics, maths, further maths and economics at A level. Despite being very clever, he was rejected by Cambridge, whose facilities for disabled students appeared rather makeshift. Abrams says that Perin œis an embodiment of everything Seven Kings High School stands for. He is serious yet friendly, he is hard-working, never rebellious, flashy or loud.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Anthony, wannabe œgangsta who smokes dope and flouts the school rules. Having been excluded by another school, he is taken on by Seven Kings, which manages to extract some creditable qualifications from him and secure him a place as an electrical apprentice. It is a testament to Abrams’s skills that I cheered when I learnt this: she proved to me that the school had made a difference, even to a rebel like Anthony.

Running like a thread of gold throughout the book is the presence of Alan Steer, who has been knighted for his heroic efforts as head of the school for two decades. Steer is remarkable because he is an œold-fashioned head in a tumultuous time. Steer is a rare breed indeed.

It is an ethos that is sadly lacking in It’s Your Time You’re Wasting: A Teacher’s Tales of Classroom Hell, written under the pseudonym Frank Chalk. This is a sour, vituperative book that is both addictive and ghastly. I recognised many of the situations: the constant cussing between pupils, the back-stabbing staff, colleagues off sick with stress, the aggressive parents, and the ridiculous government bureaucracy and policies.

Chalk’s solution is to suggest that all parents sign a legally binding document that would read: œI will send my brat to school on time. I will make sure he does his homework. If my child is punished, I will accept the judgment of the school.

Chalk undermines many of his judgments and observations by defending the educationally indefensible: he suggests that getting the children to copy from the board is a panacea, that children should be punished as a whole group and the perpetrators should not be isolated, and he appears to hate many of the children he teaches.

Thankfully, Phil Ball’s The Hapless Teacher’s Handbook is more forgiving in tone and the humour is not so cruel. He, too, deals with the truculent children and washed-out staff but his book has much more narrative drive than Chalk’s. His description of his probationary year is a genuine journey of the spirit. My only gripe is that it is set in the early 1980s and feels dated. Both Chalk’s and Ball’s memoirs are engaging books for teachers to read, whether or not they reach a wider audience.

But Abrams’s account of Seven Kings is altogether more ambitious and deserves a broad readership. Through her lively accounts of pupils and staff, she has shown that well-run schools with stable, committed staff and supportive parents can change society for the better. This makes it essential reading for anyone who genuinely cares about the future of our schools.

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