Back to School by Jack Sheffield – an academic year in the life of a young teacher in 1960s Yorkshire


In this well timed book, this popular author goes back to his own career as the basis for a very readable novel of school life in all its humour, frustrations and excitement. Set in 1969 -70, this book vividly brings to life the experience of teaching on a challenging estate in North Yorkshire. This is not the rolling dales or picturesque countryside; rather it is a community where tarmac rather than trees defines the landscape. Jack describes in his own words the enthusiasm he brings to teaching and the colleagues who he enjoys working with who are each described as true individuals. Despite the difficult background of the children, the biggest challenge to Jack’s teaching is the headteacher, whose attitudes are aggressively out of step with contemporary practice. With his usual eye for detail and love of an excellent anecdote, this is a lively and beautifully written book is alive with a sense of place and time. I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this most enjoyable book. 


The book opens with a large interview for teachers to be dispatched throughout Yorkshire. Thus it is only when Jack and Penny, a young teacher he met at the interview day, arrive at Heather View Primary school before term starts that they appreciate that the name does not really describe the austere building before them. Obviously underfunded, it soon becomes clear that the building and certain classrooms are ill equipped and that the caretaker is slapdash at best. In the absence of the headteacher, the two young teachers are greeted by Barbara the deputy head, who is welcoming and forthcoming concerning the local shops and area. On the first day of term Jack is met by the headteacher who describes himself as “Little”, and loses no time in informing Jack “Just so you’re clear, in this school there’s a right way and a wrong way….You need to understand right from the off that these people only understand discipline”. He shows Jack the cane he uses on the juniors, while he points out that he uses a slipper on the infants. A heavy smoker with little or no interest in the welfare of the children, his attitude to Jack is aggressive and appalling. 


Happily the children, though frequently coming from difficult backgrounds, with the majority qualifying for free school meals, respond well to Jack’s enlightened teaching practices. The other staff include the obsessive Travis who is enthusiastic and fascinated by trains, and the determined Connie with a past and strong views. The school secretary Edith is a charming woman who discovers a problem, while Audrey seeks true love. With playing for the local rugby team, sorting out his accommodation and making friends, Jack is enjoying his first year at the school, but is a little mystified by Penny.  


This is a very enjoyable book which shows some of the joys and challenges of teaching in a small under resourced school. Much of the humour emerges from the children and their families, as well as the other staff and their enthusiasms. Sheffield is as always careful to include the prices paid for items to give a definite sense of time, as well as recording attitudes to current events. This is such an enjoyable book which I had difficulty putting down once begun, and I recommend it for those who enjoy nostalgia, humour, and insight into school life with a hint of romance.     


This is one of several of Sheffield’s books set in Yorkshire schools, though this one is far more autobiographical and therefore is not as planned out as his fictional writing. His humour is always natural, his insights compelling, and is a pleasure to read.    

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