Book review: Educating Jack by Jack Sheffield

Shoulder pads, pixie boots, Curly Wurly bars, ET, Dallas, Cagney and Lacey, Boy George and the Falklands War ... who could forget the 1980s?

Many of us can still remember the heady days of Fame and Raleigh BMX Burners, but few with the clarity and recall of headmaster-turned-author Jack Sheffield.

He’s now on the sixth instalment of his hilarious and heart-warming Teacher series and the memories, wry commentary and side-splitting fun are still flowing with the same irresistible ease and charm.

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The stories feature school and village life in the fictional village of Ragley-on-the-Forest Primary School but are based on Sheffield’s real-life experiences at two North Yorkshire schools in the 1970s and 1980s.

Each of his books covers a period of the school year and the series has become cult reading for those who can’t get enough of the brave new world of the Eighties and love Yorkshire humour and a genuinely warm and touching tales.

There’s no high drama here (apart from a visit from an educational time-and-motion expert, a lost tortoise and the arrival of the new 20p coin) but there’s laughs, social nostalgia and entertainment on every page.

It was an age when people reflected incredulously on the prospect of a ‘cashless, chequeless’ financial future in which schools would more than likely use computers and two-way videos as teaching tools (as if!).

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In Educating Jack, we have arrived at the start of the new academic year in September 1982. Jack is now happily married to fellow headteacher Beth, a car accident earlier in the year has tilted everyone’s familiar world a few degrees and there’s a dress-code problem with four-year-old new starter Patience Crapper whose newly pierced ears and leg warmers are causing a stir in the playground.

In the larger world, there are also strange happenings. Coca-Cola has introduced something called ‘Diet Coke,’ women protesters are camping at RAF Greenham Common and a perplexing man known as Ozzy Osbourne has decided to bite the head off a bat during a live concert.

And it’s not all plain sailing for Jack who has to contend with his wife’s worrying ambitions, attempts by other family members to get him out of his comfy herringbone sports jacket and into a flamingo-pink shirt, and a visit from the time-and-motion man whose claim to fame is that he ‘never smiles.’

Add to this the visiting vicar’s ongoing problems with children who ask awkward and unanswerable questions, embarrassing moments with Cleethorpes clairvoyant Phoebe Duckworth and a quirky new job for village layabout Ronnie Smith and there’s never a dull moment in Ragley!

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The joy of Sheffield’s laugh-out-loud books is his attention to period detail and his ability to tap into the fun and foibles of both school and village life.

Educating Jack is a delight from start to finish – a trip down memory lane for ‘golden oldies’ and a journey of discovery for younger generations.

(Bantam, paperback, £12.99)

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