Review by Ed Finch

Teacher and facilitator, Devon

3 Mar 2024, 5:00

Book

Geoff and Margaret’s Old School Book of Retirement Tales

By Geoff and Margaret

Publisher

Focus Education

ISBN 10

9781911416784

Published

31 Dec 2023

Who remembers the distinctive scent of the banda machine? Purple blotches on the teacher’s hands after a lunch break coaxing fuzzy maps from the clacketty monster in the corner of the office?

Who remembers getting the wall bars out and playing ‘off ground it’? Who remembers Geordie Racer, the highlight of the week, the big telly on wheels?

Who remembers When A Knight Won His Spurs, Autumn Days, I Was Cold I Was Naked Were You There?

The teaching profession is just as prone to nostalgia as any other. Perhaps more than most. Dipping into the pages of Geoff and Margaret’s Old School Book of Retirement Tales tickles that very specific part of the brain that harbours memories of a childhood; teachers fierce and teachers kind, apple crumble and a paper trimmer that could take your arm off if used unsupervised.

No expense has been spared to make this rather lovely book a potent nostalgia trap. Nice paper, beautifully designed, full colour photos and facsimiles of wonderful things – a cross stitched rectangle of binka, a Coomber cassette player, the BBC Music and Movement resource (I still resent a scolding from Mrs Wainwright who said I had been ‘leaping’ when I should have been ‘jumping’).

Articles on school trips, mobile classrooms, reading schemes and more open each chapter. Short snippets of reminiscence are drawn from tweets sent in to the Retirement Tales twitter account (back before there was any of this ‘X’ nonsense) and, holding the book together, is the story of Geoff and Margaret and their unlikely decision to leave their comfortable retirement and head back to the classroom.

Geoff and Margaret became an instant sensation in late 2021 when they answered the call of then education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi to retired teachers to return to active duty to help out our beleaguered, Covid-hit schools. Whether Geoff and Margaret are real people, or were based on real people, or whether (as their Twitter biography claimed) they were purely allegorical was a matter of hot debate. So far as I am aware, the debate remains unsettled. Either way, they felt very real and kept us entertained through the ‘big’ lockdown of early 2021 and beyond.

No expense has been spared to make this rather lovely book a potent nostalgia trap

Margaret has the time of her life bringing back time-worn skills of storytelling, handicrafts and fuzzy felt puppetry to classrooms that seem to have lost or left behind some of the basic elements of early childhood education. Geoff finds himself teaching three year groups at once, organising rounders out on the field with only the site manager for support. A recurrent character is the ‘lovely head’. Among the fun reminders of times gone by and insights into life in schools dealing with a pandemic, we get snippets that seem very, very personal and very, very true

“The lovely head took me to one side at lunch and ended up telling me all about his money worries. I could see how it was troubling him. I told him it’s ok to open up and I listened as intently as I could in a busy dining hall.”

Threaded through this book is a vein of anger at the state that our education system has been allowed to fall into – Geoff and Margaret may only have been retired a few years, but they perceive a profession in a state of desperation and school leaders barely holding the show together.

Certainly, most will buy this book for the nostalgia; it’s a perfect book to dip into, but alongside that is a contrast between today’s stretched and difficult education world – one which is as hard or harder for the pupils as it is for the staff – and a time when schooling seemed kinder, more human perhaps.

Of course, nostalgia often gives the past a rosy glow. Perhaps schools in the sixties and seventies weren’t quite as lovely as Geoff and Margaret remember them. But there’s a call to arms here, a call for an education in which children can be children and teachers can, gloriously, be ‘real’ teachers. A call for our post-pandemic schools to live up to the promise of a heartfelt education.

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