As the government and teachers’ unions argue over the return to school, many debates are taking place about the education gap, the missed months of learning, the ‘summer slide’ or ‘brain drain’ that usually occurs over the long summer holidays now stretching into months and months off school. But what some children are really missing is not so much the mainstream education, as the microcosm of society that school represents.
Looking at children’s literature about schools, such as Wigglesbottom Primary by Pamela Butchart, Malory Towers by Enid Blyton, Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, The Chalet School by Elinor Brent-Dyer, St Grizzle’s School for Girls by Karen McCombie, and so many more, it’s definitely not the learning taking centre stage.
Even those who prefer to play hookey from school find relative gains from its presence, such as meeting up with a girl, and having an environment in which to show off (I’m looking at you Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher). School is a way to find one’s own identity, to compare oneself with others, it’s an avenue to finding one’s passions, and a place to spark adventure. School is where friendships are made and cemented. It’s hard to sustain this tight closeness during lockdown – how would Mildred Hubble and Maud have fared? Or Harry, Ron and Hermione? In fact, one of the most devastating scenes in the Harry Potter books is when Harry is alone in his bedroom during the summer, and bemoans the lack of contact from his friends. The loneliness is stark.
Even William Golding could have easily set Lord of the Flies in a playground. A playground pretty much acts as a desert island; teachers standing around with mugs of coffee, helplessly looking the other way, whilst all sorts of mischief and camaraderie and bullying goes on in its clandestine way.
How do children bond as a pack when they’re not together and there’s no nemesis directly before them to gang up against? Miss Hardbroom and the Demon Headmaster would not be as menacing on a Zoom screen. Alone in bedrooms, there are no fights over playground equipment or footballs; the bully can’t flush your PE trainers down the toilet. Izzy’s tight friendship group in Baby Aliens Got My Teacher by Pamela Butchart, would find it hard to carry on all their adventures over WhatsApp.
There’s no point making subversive lyrics to the school songs, as in Diane Wynne Jones’ Witch Week, when the teachers are completely out of earshot. The most children can do is fake technical difficulties when they are supposed to hand in work – and it’s at this point that I begin to pity current children’s authors. Technology has never been a comfortable fit with children’s adventures, which is why for the most part, contemporary children’s fiction throws out the technology with the parents at the start of the novel. Children must be free of all shackles to adventure.
The community that school gives – think of meals in Hogwarts’ dining hall or shared buns in Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – cannot be replicated on an app or in small family kitchens. Children need their gangs and groups, their misfits and scapegoats, their bullies and besties, in order to try to shape their own identities and see who they might become. Our children need their tribes in order to have their tribulations.
So, I welcome a return to school if only that it makes playing hookey more appealing again. Otherwise we face a future in which primary school librarians (if there are any left of our dying breed) have to shelve the fictional adventures of St Claires‘ and Trebizon next to The Hobbit in the fantasy section.
We can do times tables at home. We can’t make forever friends, giggle at the class clown, or fear the Headteacher. We can only read about them. You can see some of my prior blogs on school stories here and here.