Friday 2 July 2010

The Harpole Report

'The Harpole Report' by J.L. Carr.
I picked this up at the library when random browsing, mainly because I read 'A Month in the Country' about two years ago, it was the book for my first meeting with the book group in Stow.

This is an amusing anecdotal tale of George Harpole and his first term as acting Headmaster at a small rural primary school. It was published in 1972 and by the atmosphere seems to be set during the 50's or early 60's. It is told by way of extracts from the school log, Harpole's personal diary, correspondence between members of staff and the local authority officials, and from parents, so there are a huge variety of voices contributing to the story, each giving their own perspective on the running of the school. Although fictional I am guessing it is based on Carr's own experience of teaching during this period.

At the school many of the staff have obviously been very long standing and Harpole's attempts to change their ways of doing things are met with not inconsiderable resistance, while at the same time he is having to deal with interfering local councillors, obstructive officials and overly demanding parents. He heart is definitely in the right place in terms of trying to make the school a better place for his charges. We also follow his developing relationship with Emma Foxberrow, an opinionated new arrival and Cambridge graduate who has some more unconventional ideas about education. I liked the bit where Harpole decides all the classes should go on an educational outing, and asks the staff to list their proposed outing and what the purpose of the outing would be. Emma decides to take her children to "the confluence of the Elver and the Alder" (two local rivers), and defines the purpose as "to have an exciting time", so I liked her right from the start. She then proceeds to organise an extremely successful sports day that even enthuses the older staff members.

Along with the everyday stuff you have some interesting politicking going on in the background. Firstly Harpole's abandonment of the class entitled 'The backwards' (they were not so subtle in those days), after an acknowledgement that once a child was in this class they were there for the duration. Following the 'Eleven Plus' results Harpole tries to take on the education authority over what he sees as unfair access to the grammar school when he discovers that 'borderline' children from his school have a negligible chance of gaining access compared to children from more 'middle class' areas. He struggles to avoid accepting a known 'troublesome' (and very large) family of kids when they move into his catchment area, but then when he admits defeat he takes them on wholeheartedly, tackling their literacy problems with determination and then forthrightly tackling their feckless parents. There is also some not so subtle criticism of old style teaching (Emma Foxberrow, letter to her sister, Felicity):

"For instance, my door happening to be ajar I heard him going on at Mrs G-J in the corridor. 'Now,' he was saying furiously 'I've had enough of this. I want these children treated a children not as Victorian scullery maids. They are not here on sufferance to provide the Grindle-Jones's with a double pension - they are your raison d'ĂȘtre, between 9 and 4.'
'I've never been spoken to like this before in all my thirty years experience,' she wails.
'You have not had thirty years experience, Mrs Grindle-Jones,' he says witheringly, 'You have had one year's experience 30 times.' " (p.128)

All in all an interesting and enlightening picture of schooling of a certain era. It can almost make you feel nostalgic when you look at the level of government interference that happens now. The book is lent and edge of authenticity by a lovely selection of period photographs scattered throughout. In the end Harpole rejects the offer of another headship and he and Emma run away together to Africa to start a teacher training college, though she refuses to marry him. An amusing diversion from current reading.

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