Kate Clanchy is a journalist, teacher and distinguished, award-winning poet. The book is, first of all, superbly well written, the stories beautifully paced and elegantly punctuated by thoughts about education policy and society. These thoughts are often trenchant but, unlike almost everybody else who engages in debates about education, Clanchy is no ideologue. She dislikes religious schools, is sceptical of grammars and she is hyper-sensitive to the tortuous ways of class and race. On the other hand, she is keen on school uniforms, precisely because of what the children tell her... I can see flaws in Clanchy’s analyses, but these are trivial in the context of her exuberant narrative flow. She only once lets me down, when she slips into the glibly nonsensical statement “all great literature is subversive”. I have no idea what this means and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me. Never mind, read this book, then lots of poetry and the world will be a better place.
...a wonderful book of dispatches from the front line of education by Kate Clanchy, a state school English literature teacher of 30 years. Clanchy is also a Costa-nominated novelist and poet. Last year I reviewed England: Poems from a School, a tremendous anthology of some of her pupils’ best poetry, which she edited. This book gives a sense of the life stories of some of those young poets and what it took to get them writing... This is a book that will appeal not just to other teachers and parents, but to anyone who cares about education. Her classroom anecdotes are inspiring, mortifying, energising and moving. I’d give her an A*.
The book’s weakness is also its strength: the specificity of Clanchy’s perspective. She’s white, middle-class and private school educated and makes no attempt to hide it. Her insights therefore avoid the vague generalisations we might find in a government report and come with the practical wisdom of a teacher on the ground – “a bodily experience, like learning to be a beekeeper, or an acrobat”. For those of us who haven’t been in a classroom for some time, she successfully evokes the full sensorium of school life... The liberal ethos has its own restrictions, but it may still be the best we have. We need people like Clanchy to keep these ideals alive.