My apologies should be extended to all readers of this entry before I continue any further. Firstly, this blog entry is shorter than the average, this is because of no reason other than I have left it late (as usual) and my children are attacking my computer as I write. Secondly, that my comments here are completely blinded by my love for the book upon which this is based. I should, by rights, also apologise for any ‘spoilers’ that I have included; but if you want to read the book enough I would hope that any plot and character details that I make mention of will only tempt you further, rather than turn you away in disappointment. My comments are driven therefore by a passionate fervour somewhat akin to that of the beleagured (and slightly inept) headmaster of Ribblestrop school – although I should also make mention here that I do not in any way condone the maltreatment of children which often takes place under his ‘care’.
Why write about it then? I shall get to the point: despite its obvious failings, Ribblestrop is the sort of school where I would love to teach. I am perfectly sure that I probably said the exact same thing when first introduced to Hogwarts many years ago, but the difference here is that Ribbletsrop is attainable and Hogwarts (because of its magic) can only ever be a fantasy. Ok, I do have to admit here that a school which forces its only girl pupil to sleep in a shed in the grounds, has no roof, as well as murderous co-habitants who make use of labyrinthine laboratories in the basement is pretty unlikely to really exist (I would hope!). In addition, the dubious backgrounds and qualifications of the staff (especially including the malevolent, cross-dressing, bald, toothless octagenarian who for most of the novel holds the post of Deputy Head) also mean that no adult at the school would ever pass a CRB check; but with the exception of the one ‘teacher’ mentioned in detail they could also be argued to be visionary educators.
“Visionary educators!”, I hear you cry. Well yes, in many ways they are, and many parents do in reality search for the sorts of schools for their offspring which offer many of the same opportunities which Ribblestrop does. Learning at Ribblestrop is based upon an experiential skills-based curriculum (one, I might add, which both the present and past governments have aimed towards in their own ‘sweet’, occasionally misguided, ways). Maths is taught through the redesigning and rebuilding of the roof and creation of a football pitch, Geography and Art through wandering and mapping out the grounds; and Science is under the direction of a resident scientist and is entirely practically-based. PE at Ribblestrop is admittedly in its developmental stages, but is entirely inclusive of ability and offers wonderful equal opportunities for participation. Literacy teaching is a slight weakness, but one which the headmaster himself has taken charge of and if the examples of the children’s writing included in the book are anything to go by, then the progress is promising. Where the school’s real strengths lie however (if you ignore the hideous lack of care which results in pupils being experimented upon, drugged, verbally abused, threatened, offered alcohol, physically hurt, shot at, locked in a burning shed…oh, and almost hit by an intercity train) are with its PSHE and Citizenship programme. It is difficult to ignore the murderous intent of Miss Hazlitt, I would agree, but her/his desire to include ‘manners’ on the curriculum was not totally without failure, and the ‘everyone chips in’ attitude towards school activities means that the pupils’ strong sense of camaraderie, community and belonging is a credit to the hard work of the (non-murderous) staff.
In the words of Ribblestrop’s headmaster, Dr Norcross-Webb, “a school is a living thing: it grows from a seed”. And Ribblestrop recognises that the seed is potential which is not necessarily confined to gender, ability or financial position by offering “every child a new start”. It might be a dangerous place for the pupils to be, but if you scrape below the surface, Ribblestrop has qualities which make it a tremendous one as well. And when I eventually make my return to the classroom, I shall look for its strengths in the schools in which I teach.
*Please note that this blog entry represents the views of the author and not of Cambridge Children’s Literature students as a whole.
**Interesting, and not entirely irrelevant, final point of note: if you search for Ribblestrop in Google Images, after about ten pages you eventually come across pictures of the Dalai Lama. I have no obvious explanation for this.