Frequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a
bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.
First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?
It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.
Is life as a teacher really that bad?
It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.
Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?
The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.
Is that why the drugs?
I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.
Do you work those kind of hours?
I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.
Why include the romantic sub-plot?
I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.
Is it doomed?
Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.
And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?
I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.
But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?
People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.
The final image is ambiguous
It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.
2 responses to “An interview with the author”
Great you have caught up with T.O. McKee. His point about the gleeful destruction wrought by Gove is well made and persists both with his successor and with Gove’s move to new topics.
I’d also ask the author: “What top few things would catalyse the way to improve education?”
I’m about halfway through Coote’s adventure at the moment.
That’s a really good question. I’ll post T.O. McKee’s emailed response first, then add my own thoughts.
“Two things need to happen before it’s too late. The first is something similar to what Gordon Brown did with interest rates and the Bank of England a few years ago: which is to ensure that political influence over education – especially curriculum content, exam specifications, assessment matters – is removed. Which means handing oversight over to some kind of extension of Ofqual, I suppose. Input needs to come from universities (all of them, not just self-appointed élite institutions), responsible* employers, and education professionals.
“*A responsible employer of course, is UK-based, paying UK tax, and with no connection (whether through donations or board members) to political parties.
“The second thing is that the market needs to be taken out of education. That means one exam board per subject, and collaboration rather than competition between schools. Head teachers need to have less power – especially when it comes to determining individual teachers’ pay and conditions. And get rid of the consultants.”
To McKee’s thoughts, I would add the following. Any change would be painful, because it will involve more (albeit more welcome) change. I would also say that local schools should be under local education authority control. That means one budget and one kind of school – no free schools, no academies, no UTCs. Furthermore, a more level playing field in education would be facilitated by the removal of charitable status from private schools.