Book Review - Zero Tolerance: A Novel

It’s a bit surprising that this book has had so little fuss or attention. Perhaps it is because it is fiction rather than a look into how you might use the revolutionary dual coding, erm, to show pictures while you are talking at kids; perhaps because the author, while a blogger, is not a member of any identifiable crew, nor of any kind of scene that celebrates itself; perhaps because the author is old school, is committed to the community he or she works in and exists to serve rather than to profit.

The author is a teacher of the vintage of those who had been around for a decade or two pre-academisation, which, given that the majority of these have been in the last decade or so does not necessarily make them that old, but there are signs of him/her belonging to an era dominated by head teachers who were old fashioned liberals who led with the heart. Such people still exist, somewhere.

It narrates a collapse in moral standards that occurs when a fictional community school is taken under the arm of a fictional academy chain, and the long serving Head is replaced by a thrusting, polished stereotype close-ish to government. It covers what has been some/many teachers’ experience of this process in detail: talented, experienced teachers placed on groundless competency procedures, ‘support’ packages merely being evidence collection for the push, any sense of professional ethics being surrendered to the ever rapacious demands of the results and, most importantly, the kids likely to be a ‘drag’ on the results being ‘disappeared’. There are characters and practices that teachers will recognise in every page of this book. The destructive influence of the chain is paralleled by a story about the experience of a refugee child and the difference between his experiences in the academy and the predecessor school.

The book is a page-turner. I’d intended to save it read it over Christmas, but, once opened on a journey to teach in Birmingham, it was rarely it of my hands: I read it in three journeys. It covers much of the same ground as Cefyn Thomas’s Academy Confidential’, and there is genuine craft here. The author can write; it is ornately structured and features teacher dialogue and relationships you can believe are real.

While I don’t necessarily hold the same views on academies as the author: for me, in many instances, they replaced schools that were struggling for decades and, while I’m not too keen on singing company songs, many of the chains have been fearless in taking on and trying to improve schools that serve working class communities.

Sometimes, the passion to improve the offer for children has been done with too little thought for the humanity of the teachers and with a view that qualified professionals who may or may not have been struggling could be treated as just so much human collateral, but there are practices which, if the novel is a fictionalised portrait of real life, are genuinely terrifying. One of these is taking an innocent idea that I came up with a decade ago and so perverting it that I am ashamed to have been its originator. The walking talking mock, which was originally intended just to be an exercise in practicing time management specifically on the AQA paper 1 English Language exam is, in ‘Zero Tolerance: A Novel’, transformed into a means through which the fictionalised academy feeds in answers to students in closed off rooms. I hope this is fiction; I can't see how it cannot be; but it operates in the book as a totem to how, for some experienced teachers, and, again, I am not necessarily saying that I agree with this, their experience is that integrity has been replaced with the self-interest of naked careerists. (Though I did work at one school, the school at which a friend and I came up with teacher top trumps (“Number of pies eaten this week?” “Two”, “All of them”; “Consecutive years of celibacy?” “None”, “All of them”) where there were posters everywhere shouting out in upper case “EVERYONE IN THIS BUILDING IS IMPORTANT” and which teachers would pass and mutter, in lower case, “unless they have a teaching qualification”, and I have witnessed (and been involved in) the ‘operating within the letter of the law but outside of its spirit’ technique, but the practices outlined in this very enjoyable work of fiction, if informed by the reality of the author’s experience, are frightening).

All-in-all though, no matter what your age or your positioning on the ideological and ethical see-saw, no matter how far the practices mirror real life, as a work if fiction is stand up or down on its readability and it is eminently readable: an enjoyable diversion for any teacher and one that, no matter how cynical you are, will be likely to have you crying by the final pages.

Added Sun, 10 Jan 2021 13:43

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