The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr, dramatized by Jonathan Smith

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15-Minute Drama on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 12-16 March 2012, BBC Radio 4 Extra 17 March 2012
School teachers, like teachers in further and higher education, are often difficult to cope with, especially if they have been together for a long time. I remember my first experience of teaching in a primary school, over three decades ago, when the staff included a secretary who smoked cigarillos and never did any typing (this was in the days before computers), a class teacher who always wanted her lunch at precisely 12 noon (no earlier, no later), and another teacher whose sole conversational topic centred on her son at university. They were employed by a head teacher who spent most of his days studying tree rings, leaving the administration of the school, such as it was, to the secretary.
I could therefore feel nothing but sympathy for idealistic head teacher George Harpole (Sean Dingwall), who took over temporarily in a small Church of England primary school, and faced similar difficulties from an intransigent staff, an obstreperous caretaker (Christian Rodska), a nymphomaniac governor (Lesley Nicol), and a free-thinking young teacher Emma Foxberrow (Hattie Morahan) who believed in letting the children express themselves.
Stylistically speaking, Bruce Young's production consisted of a first-person narrator (Harpole) recording his impressions of life at school, either in letter form or direct to listeners, interspersed with extracts from other letters written by his fellow-staff members, as well as members of the local education authority. The adaptation resembled a chorus of voices, each trying to impress themselves on us; it was up to us to decide which one was the most reliable. We admired Harpole's perseverance, but sometimes we felt that his management style was heavy-handed, to say the least.
The action proceeded in picaresque style, with comic incident piling upon comic incident: one teacher complained that his cardboard model of a Norman keep, which he used in his history classes, had gone missing; another felt outraged that her method of keeping the register had been brought into question; while Harpole found himself more than once in an embarrassing situation. Through such situations the adapter Jonathan Smith reminded us of the petty absurdities that often dominate teachers' lives - especially when they have rehearsed the same material year after year.
Ultimately, however, Harpole understood that his experience at the school was a beneficial one. At the beginning he had put up a picture, containing the familiar verses by Sir Henry Newbolt (ending "play up, play up, and play the game."). By the end of the adaptation he realized that they were nothing more than empty words; it was far more important for him to follow his instincts. If that meant quitting the school for pastures new, then so be it.
The Harpole Report was set in the not-too-distant past, when the eleven-plus still blighted many children's lives. However it still had a lot to tell us about educational life, and how those involved in it should try to make the best of what they have.