School’s Out by Jack Sheffield – Life in eighties Britain

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A series of books about a village school, told from the point of view of the Head teacher, set in the 1980s, is a familiar idea. “School’s Out” is the seventh book in the series, which seems to be continuing into this year with a prequel. These books are better read in order, but I am convinced that this book, like the others, could be read as a standalone. These books, and certainly this one, are essentially gentle reads set in a small community with all its foibles and events. Perhaps it is not full of great literary elements, and it will not change the world with either its narrative, language or character insight, but it is a delightful read in any circumstances.

This book is set in the academic year 1983 -1984, and no opportunity is overlooked in giving the details of the time; the price of sweets, newspapers and magazines. News and views of the day is referred to throughout, perhaps most poignantly in the references to the miners’ strike of the time. This is a book about people, mainly seen through the eyes of Jack, the head teacher of the school, as he records the real nature of events and daily life in the school in an unofficial school logbook. This is a book about the children, making their mark in the school, being scouts outside the building, and general contributing to the life of the village. It is about the staff, as they deal with their classrooms, their own relationships, and the change of teachers as they face the new technology of computers. Vera is the efficient secretary who has married the local lord of the manor, but retains an unrivalled knowledge of the village. Ruby is the cleaner, devoted to her own and all the children of the village, but who must face her own problems. The small stories of the people in the village, the hairdressers, the shopkeepers, the limitations of the of the local drama group, are all faithfully depicted, mostly in very funny ways. This book does not really build up into any great crisis point, but progresses through the school year with changing weather, various celebrations and always the funny and strange things that children do and say. The story of Jack’s own relationship with his wife Beth, her family, and the growing baby John also form a background to the novel, as they face the same decisions as couples have done over the years.

I enjoyed this book, with all its too human challenges and stories. As a teacher I recognised the sort of little anecdotes of what children say and do, and this being a village school there are many sorts of children, a fact recognised by Sheffield as he hints at what they will do in the future. This is a book which is immensely approachable, much in the same way as James Herriot wrote so movingly about the people and animals of the Yorkshire dales. It is special because this is a writer who knows his subject so well that he does not need to create the stories as much as order them and draw out their full humour. His painstaking recording of small details meant to anchor the novel in the time can be a little tiresome and breaks up the flow of the stories, but that is a minor quibble in an engaging read. This is a book with few pretensions, but is undoubtedly enjoyable and part of a fascinating series.

So many different sorts of books, so little time! This week (on Thursday) my review of “I am Heathcliff” is featured on Shiny New Books and I will hope to have some other reviews popping up hereabouts. In other news I start back at University for the second year of my M.A. course in Public History and Heritage this week, continue preparing my talk on Vera Brittain and the First World War, host a Macmillan Coffee Morning with much cake, and help with the Big Book Sale for Book Aid. I may read a book or two as well!

Star Teacher by Jack Sheffield – a small rural school described with humour

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One of a series of books, this enjoyable novel is a quick read, but has a lot of appeal to teachers, parents and certainly anyone who remembers the eighties. Not a dramatic read in many ways, it tackles everyday issues of life in a rural school, but also has much to say about the community in which it is set. The anecdotes of what the children say and do reveal an acute listener with a large experience of working in schools, and these “Teacher” books have been likened to the James Herriot vet books in terms of humour. This, the ninth book in the popular series, is a good representative of all the books, with all the battles to maintain the status quo in the face of county pressures.

Jack Sheffield is the main character, being the head teacher of Ragley village school in rural Yorkshire. As in the other books, the school year provides the framework for the novel, as the various children, some of their parents and the school staff feature in the narrative. Much of the novel is narrated through Jack’s eyes, so we see the broad picture of a school that he obviously feels strongly about in every detail. As with all the books, we read many of the children’s puns and misunderstandings which fit into the story well; less smoothly integrated are the prices of small items which Sheffield has obviously researched in detail. The subtitle is “The Alternative School Logbook 1985 – 1986”, and the book is the very slightly subversive view of the education system from the inside. Changes are afoot for Beth, Jack’s wife, as her ambitions for a different headship continue. Soon Jack is told that a proposed combination of schools mean he will have to reapply for his current job, and this provides a tension throughout much of the book. The children and staff provide much distraction, and the main people in the village show their distinctive characteristics in such settings as the village dramatic production. My favourite is the gentle postmistress whose teddy bear reminds her of her lost love.

This book is a fast and easy read, enjoyable in every sense. As an ex teacher I appreciate the humour and tiny incidents in a school and village which make up life. The machinations of certain “baddies” in the education system is a familiar tale, and the less likable characters add to the story greatly. This book would work as a standalone read, whereas the whole series is even more enjoyable. I recommend it as a great comfort read, one which entertains without effort, and is essentially cheerful.

The final two days of the Derby Book festival were extremely interesting. I greatly enjoyed the tea with Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books, and I am greatly looking forward to the two new books I have yet to read. Lucy Mangan was really friendly, abandoning her signing session  to pop up the stairs to sign my book and chat. Altogether it was a really good festival, and I hope Diane my companion enjoyed it as much!

An easy to read series of books

I like to mention books on this blog which are easy to get hold of for everyone. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy tracking down and reading obscure books as much as anyone…Sir Charles Grandison was eighteen months in the tracking down and a long time in the reading…

A set of books which has turned up (in part) on The Book People (who do some great fiction collections), second hand book shops and libraries is Jack Sheffield’s Teacher series.  They are variously entitled Teacher Teacher, Mister Teacher and Please Sir.

  

I believe that this is the first in the series of five, but frankly it’s not a disaster if you read them out of order, as I did ( starting with the last, typically). This one is set in 1977, and they go into the 8os, each book being devoted to one academic year in the life of Ragley village school.

Jack Sheffield writes about his time as headteacher from his appointment onwards, and having taught in schools in small communities I recognised many of the types and incidents that he depicts, even some years later. I liked his descriptions of the staff and pupils, even though I knew some of the puns that his pupils wrote in their books could be found in any school anywhere. The community of pub, shops and other local worthies was fascinating in the same way as the Village series by Rebecca Shaw can be. Daft events, remarkable coincidences and seemingly huge problems are happily resolved within the chapter. These are comfortable books, easy to pick up and become involved in, presenting a picture of Britain as it probably never actually was, but we would like to believe still is, somewhere. There are endless topical references to politics, and the Royal family, which we can now view with the benefit of hindsight. There is a lot here about the tv, the clothes, the food we used to eat, the obsessions in a simpler, pre internet age.

These are truly easy to read books, with only minor crisis to resolve, although the most recent paperback finishes in a cliffhanger that is a bit mean as the next book is still not available in any form (I think). They are the book form of British soap operas, but much more cheerful! ( I rarely watch the British soaps, but have been known to watch Neighbours as Pantomime – every day) These books are worth borrowing from the library or buying cheaply secondhand; a blissfully uncomplicated read when more literary fiction just seems too much like hard work…