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

Francis Gilbert's picture
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 believes that Oxford is choc-a-bloc with psychotic professors, or reads Agatha Christie thinks 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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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 07:45

In answer to your question, "Should novelists have a duty to portray state schools in a positive light?" the answer is, No. Under no circumstances should novelists be under any obligation to put forward a particular point of view.

As far as the media is concerned they are entitled to promote a particular point of view - that is what a free press is. The media must be free to discuss issues without favour or duress (especially from government or a newspaper owner). However, this point of view should be backed up by evidence and be accurate. contains examples of many press articles (and government statements) which have been misleading, sometimes even scurrilous. However, when a tabloid runs a front page which proclaims in 3" high font the sensational headline, "Britain's Broken Schools", then the damage is done. As points out: these "daily lapses in accuracy and accountability ...cause real and tangible harm to public debate". That is why is campaigning for accuracy to be part of the press inquiry.

O. Spencer's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 07:50

I'd definitely recommend Classroom Secrets, Francis. Judging by the name, you'd think it would show a school in chaos like in Our Day Out. You will be in for a pleasant surprise. It's available here if you use iPlayer (

A few years ago the school was failing but has now been judged good in the latest OFSTED report. To me, the school looked nice, teachers seemed highly motivated and the parents were engaged. In short the school has a typical leafy charm, not your average Waterloo Road! All very ordinary. A quick glance at the DfE stats shows that the school has a small intake of both FSM pupils and pupils with SEN - 11% for both. The results are very impressive - above average for Leicester and nationally.

I left junior school in 2000, so up until now I have liked to imagine that my experience was broadly similar to what most pupils and teachers experience now. This documentary has changed my opinion quite considerably on that score. At times, the scenes in class were more reminiscent of a cafe than a school. Pupils leaving the classroom to get toast? The look on poor Corey's face when he said ''That's the whole idea..'' [about missing lessons] said it all. His mother seemed very distressed that he was coming home with badges and stickers for 'sitting down' and didn't want him to be rewarded for behaviour that at home would be normal for him.

I don't know if it was a camera trick but the classroom seemed very large. There appeared to be large spaces between tables. Is this common? The teacher occasionally missed certain things and was surprised.

The programme seemed to bear out the OFSTED point about low-level disruption. I'm sure we all had sympathy with the poor kid next to Corey! Throughout the programme I didn't know whether to feel sorry for Corey or to wonder why with a supporting home, supportive teachers and supportive classmates he was still so difficult and 'lost'. However his smile in the assembly was very uplifting.

The message on the whole seemed to be a positive one. Trust and communication between parents and teachers seems to be at the heart of success. For the children, coming home to stern parents who know what they have been up to seems to force them to behave.

The other encouraging note was that in most cases the disruptive behaviour wasn't a symptom of underlying difficulties. It seemed more a case of 'being able to get away with it'. This was particularly true of Rio.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 07:59

I listened to the Front Row programme and look forward to watching the TV play "Double Lesson" which was movingly recommended by Toby Young. And, yes, I will be reading your novel. However, I'm not sure I shall watch the TV documentary "Classroom Secrets". I have serious misgivings about cameras coming into classrooms and recording children. The parents may have given their consent but the children haven't and they may have cause later in life to regret the lack of judgement of their parents and the school. These kinds of programme (and Jamie's Dream School was another example, although the young people there were old enough to give their own consent) raise many problems:

1 How far is the behaviour of the participants modified by the presence of cameras?
2 How far does the editing promote a particular point of view?
3 How far is the programme edited to make it sensational and therefore more "entertaining" for the viewer?
4 How far are viewers complicit? Do such fly-on-the-wall documentaries encourage voyeurism?
5 Are the participants "persuaded" to behave in a certain way by the programme makers who set up situations?
6 How far is what the viewer sees a true representation of what really happened?

And then there's an ethical question: should the programme reveal information about children which the viewer really has no right to know eg that a child lacks social skills, for example?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 10:03

I do think there's a substantive difference between fiction and non-fiction. I think what's very reprehensible is using statistics falsely to paint a picture of a WHOLE system in crisis -- which you've pointed out quite forensically Janet on this site. I caught the end of Classroom Secrets and thought it looked very interesting, although I was amazed at the access the TV crew got. I guess that they did get permission. I thought it was beginning to tease at this issue of what "learning" actually is; that it's as much about psychological as well as cognitive development, that parents have a crucial role to play, and that when the parents are "on board" things get a bit better. It looked very interesting, and I think I will watch all of it now...

Keith Turvey's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 13:46

I have to agree with you Janet on this. It was a poor program that exploited the parents and the children in order to fit in with the producer's agenda. The children who they focused on were not difficult children from what I could see and what I've experienced. However, they were bored. Where was the inspiring teaching, dod they do art, music, hands-on science? I didn't see any inspiring, interactive teaching and whilst I wouldn't want to condemn the school on the basis of a 40 minute edited documentary the resulting behaviour was what I would expect from many children simply being told to get on with their work; which was usually writing. Children need inspiring to write and learn. A very poor programme which showed little concern for the intrusion into these children's lives. If I want to do research in the classroom I'm expected to follow the British Educational Research Association's ethical guidelines which emphasise the best interests of the children. The televised scrutiny of these children's personal and classroom lives completely disregarded some basic ethical and moral principles regarding the rights of the child. I was appalled. See the BERA guidelines here:

Keith Turvey's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 13:52

The thing is Francis whilst I agree that it showed how things can improve when parents and teachers work together, this is a basic principle of education that is emphasised on teacher education courses across this country and enshrined in the QTS standards for teachers (old and new). Did the Head really have to or even have the right to subject these children's classroom and private lives to such scrutiny to realise this. I'm afraid by the end I found the head teacher and teacher who featured throughout somewhat naive and I'd have serious concerns about the harm that such intrusion can do to children and their families long after the cameras have gone and the producer has got their programme.

Henry Stewart's picture
Fri, 15/07/2011 - 20:22

Francis, that is an interesting question. I've just finished Last Day of Term and found it a gripping read. You have great talent as a novelist. But I was indeed troubled by the protrayal of a school, out of control, that bore no relation to any school I know (even though it was clearly based a couple of miles from where I live).

I don't know if novelists have a duty to portray schools in a positive light. But i think we need to be aware of the effect of literature in building a picture that raders take as accurate, and of the weight of negative portrayals of state schools - as Melissa pointed out.

I'm hoping your next novel will be a feel-good book about the wonders of working or studying in your local school!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 16/07/2011 - 07:52

I don't think it's the effect of literature on the perception of schools, but the effect of relentless media propaganda about the "broken" educational system. Even the Independent misreported the recent research by the Education Endowment Foundation into the performance of children eligible for free school meals who are in below-floor schools. And, of course, there was that nonsense in the Telegraph recently about 93% of UK children being educated in one of the worst education systems in the world. And then there's the stuff in certain tabloids...

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 16/07/2011 - 08:10

I would have missed "Double Lesson" on Channel 4 last night if it hadn't been for Francis' thread and the recommendations of Judy Friedberg and Toby Young. It was a gem of a programme about a good teacher, David de Gale, who snaps. The 25 minute monologue was cleverly choreographed - we see the teacher pottering in his greenhouse, getting changed into his suit (why?), standing in his bedroom next to an unmade bed (he mentions the smell of the house). Gradually his story evolves accompanied by subtle use of sound (barely perceptible) while the camera shows De Gale from different angles - sometimes talking directly to the viewer, sometimes musing, sometimes as a reflection in a mirror. Other characters are revealed with a light but perceptive touch - the absent Mrs De Gale, recovering from a mastectomy and living with her mother, the head who apoligises for not being in touch ("Didn't I tell you I was going to Crete - I'm sure I did") and Ms Dawson, voted Teacher of the Month, who takes over the direction of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" after De Gale is suspended, but suggests that De Gale's son, Adam, doesn't help out backstage. Phil Davis was superb as the secondary teacher with 27 years experience - surely he'll be in line for a Bafta. And, yes Toby, I was in tears at the end.

The programme is still available on 4D:

Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 09:28

I've been thinking over this question for a few days. Francis is right - in previous articles, and in my new book, I talk, very briefly, about the negative portrayal of comprehensives in mass selling fiction, as well as mass selling newspapers. Obviously, in pointing this out, I am not advocating a form of socialist realism, in which writers try to present balanced - ie politically correct - portraits. Never! But fictional writing about education/schools is a fascinating example of where art and politics meet.....or don't meet...or collide..... it is clear that a certain kind of comprehensive is easy prey for writers ( and tv directors etc); chaotic, full of inertia, poor teachers etc. And it's much easier to create or confirm stereotypes than it is to explore conflict and contradiction.

It's a big topic, but a few questions: are some schools written about more than others? ie where are the portraits of high pressure private schools in today's fiction? Do some writers pick on certain kinds of schools as easy targets? ( yes) Does caricature weaken art? ( I would argue it does.)

It's a question that applies to journalism too.... there's a piece in today's Observer by writer Joanna Briscoe about her chaotic comprehensive ( same one that Toby Young went to, in Devon.) I found myself reading it about four times..each time re-visiting it in the light of several elements, simultaneously: the right of the writer to tell the truth as they see it, media bias against comprehensives, current educational politics, journalistic freedom etc.

Curious to know what others think.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 15:59

There was an article in the Bristol press a couple of years back which also reached the national news that would have conformed to the worst stereotypes of a large city comprehensive school and given fiction writers plenty of material

The reason this piece caught my eye was because the teacher attended the same public boarding school as me as a pupil, and was in my house and year. The irony being that he was never one to question authority or try and push back the boundaries at school. He was more likely to be found training on the rugby pitch than having a crafty fag in the changing rooms. Also he wasn't an ill qualified Maths teacher who found himself in the classroom by default as readers might initially conclude based on prejudiced stereotypes.

Maybe the legacy of his narrow public school upbringing cast a dark shadow that saw him kicking over the traces when he was functioning in a different school environment.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 10:20

Following on from Melissa's reference to Joanna Briscoe's article in the Observer, for those of you who may not have the MOS on their reading lists, there is an interesting feature by David Milliband reminiscing about his schooldays at Haverstock, how it lost its way in the nineties, and now it is on the up, like many other London comprehensives.

DM has taken on a role as p/t politics teacher at his alma mater and he speaks positively about the school and the pupils

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 10:36

The picture painted by Joanna Briscoe of her comprehensive school wasn't entirely negative. She finishes with:

"In my urban existence, though I lurch over gaping holes in my education that university didn't entirely fill, I'm glad for that rural havoc. It provided something vivid and raw and green that moves me and amuses me still. If I didn't know what it was to hear pigs grunting through General Studies, a part of my soul would be missing."

And she admits it provided her with inspiration which a more formal education might not have given her.

Melissa Benn's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 12:04

Yes Nigel, I thought David Mi's piece was quite interesting and positive. It possessed light and shade, which, I guess, is all you can ask for.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Sun, 17/07/2011 - 17:32

I don't see there can ever possibly be a duty on novelists to present anything positively.

That said, yes, as several people above have mentioned there is no doubt that state schools,particularly comprehensive schools do tend to be portrayed very negatively in fiction and drama . This seems to be the case even where the school is not the main focus of the action.

But perhaps this applies to most or certainly many fictional characters who fulfill roles which are instantly familiar . So consultants are always arrogant and rude to students and nurses, police officers are also rude , bullying and stupid , ICT folk incredibly geeky etc etc.

I am looking forward to reading your book on holiday next week, Francis, whereas I doubt if I would be taking the collected thoughts of Melanie Phillips on education with me, so even if the school you write about is a dump I am prepared to make allowances for art!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 11:07

Yes, Henry I take your point about my next book! I do feel a bit uneasy about the portrayal of the school in the book -- it's very much a fictional portrayal of a nightmarish Kafka-esque institution, and filtered by two "personal" narratives. We never see what the "real" school is like; we only have the two characters' portrayal of it. For me, the school is merely a backdrop for the two characters' search for who they are; is Martin, the teacher, primarily a teacher or a father? Is Bela a loyal son, or an independent person who can choose what he wants for himself?

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