School’s Out – book review

Vignettes in Vinegar

‘Vignettes in vinegar’ is what James Thellusson calls some of the school reports he has collected together for his pocket-sized anthology School’s Out – Truants, Troublemakers and Teachers’ Pets.

Some of them I had heard before, no less entertaining for the retelling, but most I had not, as he has done a lot of original research and collected accounts from ordinary mortals as well as from the great and the good from some wince-inducingly acerbic teachers.

Images above: Charlotte Brontë; Sir Billy Connelly; Jon Snow; Dame Julie Walters

The opening chapter of this entertaining little collection included in the ‘Caustic Quill awards’:

Charlotte Brontë: ‘Writes indifferently’

Anon: ‘This term in Religious Studies we have studied different religions and gods. [They] wrote an engaging and enthusiastic piece about Wayne Rooney.’

Sir Billy Connolly: ‘I taught your father and he was an idiot too.’

Anon: ‘She will start the net term unencumbered by any prior knowledge.’

Journalists seem to come in for some particularly vituperative comments.

Jon Snow, formerly of Channel News: ‘Has set himself low standards, which he fails to meet’

Richard Heller (who co-presents the Oborne and Heller on Cricket podcast for The Chiswick Calendar:

‘It’s not just the cream that floats to the top. It’s the scum too’.

You have to spare a thought for the teachers too though.  I feel their pain in these two comments:

F.Nolan: ‘I have failed to change his attitude from mind-numbingly neutral, despite my attempts at anger, humour, threats, irony, heavy sarcasm etc.’

J. Aldridge: ‘I would be grateful if Julia would sometimes allow me to take the class.’

Dame Julie Walters, now considered a national treasure, was asked to leave her grammar school:

“mainly because I was never there.”

Images abaove: Sir Richard Branson; Sir Jonathan Miller CBE

Illuminating and entertaining

Though he says it is not a history book, School’s Out does reflect the changing trends from the days when school masters were moulding young men to run the Empire to the 20th century when teachers ‘felt empowered to express their anger, affection and admiration for individuals, in ways which would now seem unprofessional and foolish’ and throughout there is the joy of hugely successful people proving their persecutors wrong.

Some are amazingly prescient. Sir Richard Branson‘s headmaster’s parting words were:

“Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.”

Sir Jonathan Miller CBE is among those whose teachers’ comment sparked a resentment that lasted a lifetime. There are some interesting examples which I will not spoil of high achieving individuals whose careers were nearly blighted by their teachers’ comments, who have gone on to make a huge contribution to national life.

There are many list-style books which make their way into Christmas catalogues. Although some of the individual entries are entertaining, there is often quite a bit of padding which makes for dull reading and the repetitive layout is dreary.

This little book is not one of those; it is nicely presented, with the anecdotes grouped into chapters with common themes, so you get the individual laugh-out-loud judgements but they are set in an intelligent framework giving a sense of the social context, which is illuminating as well as entertaining.

Images above: Lady Margaret Thatcher; Sir Winston Churchill; Boris Johnson

Much has been made of Liz Truss being the first prime minister from a comprehensive school. James Thellusson points out 20 of Britain’s 55 prime ministers before her had been educated at Eton and only ten in non-fee-paying schools. His chapter on those ‘Schooled to rule’ includes entries on Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Herbert Henry Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home as well as various members of the royal family.

The best known perhaps is the quote from Boris Johnson‘s House Master at Eton:

“I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Images above: Dev Patel (photograph Gage Skidmore); John Paul Jones

Some impressively prescient, others gloriously wrong!

Among the artists and writers is John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin’s bassist, who along with drummer John Bonham ‘was part of one of the best rhythm sections in rock history’ says James Thellusson. John Paul Jones’ sports coach must have felt very silly years later when they were topping the charts, that his assessment of his sporting ability was that he was hopeless at swimming because ‘he had no sense of rhythm.’

Dev Patel moved the visiting examiner for his GCSE Drama to tears with a live performance, while Alan Stillitoe, author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, credited with transforming British novel writing in the 1960s, left school at 14 after failing to pass the entrance examinations to his local grammar school.

Images above: Baroness Boycott (photograph Roger Harris); Professor Nira C Chamberlain OBE (photograph Nic Delves-Broughton © Creative Services, University of Bath 2022)

Glass ceilings and crap career advice

The chapter on ‘Glass ceilings and crap career advice’ includes Rosie Boycott, now Baroness Boycott, founder of Spare Rib and the first female editor of a national newspaper, who was told retaking her A Levels would be a waste of her time and the school’s.

Nira Chamberlain OBE, who became President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications told his careers teacher he wanted to do something which involved mathematics or logic. The teacher told him:

“With a physique like yours you should be a boxer.”

Fortunately his parents told him: “You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a great mathematician.”

“That was not the last time I experienced racial prejudice. But when I have, I remember my parents’ words. Your career should be determined by your ideas, not your race.”

My own experience is included. I got good O Levels and my uncle suggested I apply to Oxford University. I tentatively asked our careers mistress, who put a damper on the idea, saying:

“I don’t know why on earth you want to do that? You’re only doing it for the snob value and in any case you’re not bright enough.”

Her comments just made me more determined to prove her wrong. Which I did. I got into Brasenose College to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE).

I was luckier than Baroness Molly Meacher, who despite not going to school until she was 10 and passing nine O Levels, was not allowed to take A Levels. The headmistress told her parents it would be a waste of the school’s time and hers. She now has degrees from the University of York and the University of London.

We were both considerably luckier than Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. She was famously shot by the Taliban for championing female education in Afghanistan and went on to graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford in 2020 with a degree in PPE.

Images above: Emma Raducanu MBE; Richard Heller

“Remember, you are the best player of your type in the world”

Some people just have it all. Tennis star Emma Raducanu MBE, winner of the Grand Slam and youngest recipient of an MBE aged 19, achieved an A* in Mathematics and an A in Economics in her A Levels.

For most of us though Richard Heller‘s cricket master’s deliberately ambiguous comment might give us consolation:

“Remember, you are the best player of your type in the world.”

Oldie editor Harry Mount describes the book as ’An utter delight’. I agree, it’s the perfect book for the downstairs loo or to enliven a long train journey when you can’t be bothered to engage with anything more heavy going. I hope it will fly off the shelves as a Christmas stocking filler.

Special offer

Chiswick Calendar readers who use the code ChiswickSchoolsOut before 1 December on the publisher’s online shop (sandstonepress.square.site) will receive 20% off their order for School’s Out.

James Thellusson is a columnist for The Chiswick Calendar, author of the Man in the Middle column – The musings of a middle aged man on living with his family and aged mother.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Truss is finished, so are the Tories writes Peter Oborne

See also: Liz Truss is “worlds apart” from Cadbury’s legacy, says Ruth Cadbury

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