Mark Aston finds the edu-Dickens he’s been waiting for is undermined by a too-stark representation of good and evil

The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues for the purpose of literature as a means to explore moral questions. For her, the novel is a “paradigm of moral activity”, permitting us to see overlapping truths play out and interact from the standpoint of observer. These are not just good stories; they are thought experiments in morality.

The satirical novel occupies a more problematic space. It is less easy to regard it as a dispassionate evaluation of competing truths. It is a product of passion. It runs the risk of descending into a kind of “literature of hate”, in which characters are saddled with ad hominem traits that are obviously designed to either win you over to them or repel them as far from you as possible.

Zero Tolerance presents us with two such contrasting characters: the antagonist, Camilla Everson, is an ambitious, uncompromising headteacher with a reputation for turning schools from underachieving wells of anti-promise into the kinds of high-performing, behaviourally pristine schools that we like to froth about at both ends of the political spectrum. By contrast, Rick Westfield is a no-less ambitious, but more obviously nuanced protagonist. A deputy headteacher, he is the model of high expectations infused with a sensitivity to pastoral complexities.

The takeover of his school, Fairfield High, by a multi-academy trust forces Westfield to live by his principles. In the face of a regime of uniform-checking, silent corridors and highly questionable approaches to exam preparation, Westfield gradually finds himself with no choice but to put himself in harm’s way for the good of his conscience, his colleagues, his community and, most crucially, one of his former students, Karim – a Syrian refugee refused a place in the school by the comically Machiavellian Everson for fear that having a student with “needs” would jeopardise the school’s results.

Zero Tolerance is clearly the product of experience

Zero Tolerance is clearly the product of experience. I have not taught in the UK for over ten years and frequently found myself wanting to contact the author after bouts of reading to ask them questions like “Does this really happen in schools?” and “Could a member of SLT really be this tone-deaf, careerist and without principle?” 

In the end, this novel won’t change minds. Those who already experience schools in the way described by the anonymous author will lap up the almost burlesque caricature of the Cruella de Ville that is Everson (she is described as such during a pleasingly terrifying learning walk of the school). But, to the detriment of a potentially much wider readership, Zero Tolerance does not allow us to appreciate Everson’s motivations in any way. This may well be based on the author’s experience, but it means that we miss out on a broader debate about how we got to this place of austerity, division and inhumanity in the first place.

A toxic combination of political and personal opportunism allied to economic decline and a prolonged national identity crisis may very well be the causes, but pitching a novel with too clear a distinction between good and evil makes it much harder to win over those who might dismiss its message. They will simply see it as no more than a lengthy ad hominem attack on what some believe is a legitimate attempt to improve social mobility by focusing, with Sauron-esque relentlessness, on the pursuit of academic achievement in spite of economic and social “excuses”.

That criticism aside, this is the edu-Dickens that we have been crying out for since Hard Times. Not since watching A Very Peculiar Practice – an equally caustic satire of encroaching privatisation of the NHS in the late 1980s – have I felt so politically energised by a cultural product. If the malpractices engaged in in this novel are anywhere near truth, then we have streamlined and simplified the English education system into nothing less than a Victorian workhouse, with all its attendant, oft-ignored rules and regulations and lack of meaningful (because often corrupt) oversight.

But, of course, this is only a novel, isn’t it? It is just a story, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?