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Book Review: Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room by Keith Geddes

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In Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room author Keith Geddes has his principal character, Tom Thorne, address a series of challenges. Thorne, this principal character, is a pre-school principal, or headmaster, depending on the regime in question. His first task is to manage and strengthen a Twickenham prep-school, to bolster its students’ performance in common entrance exams.

Along the way he has to deal with unruly parents, some of which are so despicably attractive that they quite put off his stroke. There are problem teachers, some of whom scheme, wheel and deal, or even take days off sick. There are, inevitably, students. Some of them perform, others under-perform. Some are almost anonymous, while some excel. There are sports fixtures where the school could do better, and there are success stories that outnumber the disappointments. And amid this, Tom Thorne finds himself a new wife, a new family and, believe it or not, a new job.

Tome takes up the challenge of a headship in a Kenyan school, near the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, right on the boundary of the Game Park. There he institutes a similar mix of curriculum reform, staff management, pupil stewardship and parental relationship that he used in Twickenham and, you’ve guessed it, things work out well. Tom is certainly kept busy. In addition, Kenya provides him with occasional experiences that Twickenham would not, such as snakes, hippos, lions and even flowering plants.

Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room is not really a novel. In the tradition of Gervase Phinn, it’s more like a fictionalised professional diary, a diary containing the things that were too unprofessional to put in the real thing. It remains of interest to a general reader, because we have all been to school and so we can all empathise with the events, many of which are displayed with considerable humour.

Head teacher Tom Thorne, we realise quite early on, bears a strong resemblance to a certain Keith Geddes, whose own life history has witnessed the exact transformations that the author inflicts on his fictional hero. And so Keith Geddes’s book begins to read more like an autobiography than fiction.

It is an anecdotal, light-hearted depiction of the professional and personal challenges that a head teacher has to address. And throughout it is also an enjoyable and often humorous experience for both pupils and teachers, despite the fact that navigating its waters is rarely plain sailing.

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