It’s 2017, and a sinister solitary force is attempting to dictate society’s values and children’s futures. Teachers have no say, government ministers revel in the new system, and it’s the pupils who suffer. Power over our minds is increasingly centralised, dictated by rigid rules imposed against our will. And an unpopular man in a suit seems to control everything.
Yes, it’s the plotline to the latest Demon Headmaster book, of course. The children’s author and Carnegie Medal winner Gillian Cross has released the latest in her much-loved series, 15 years after the last one – and now under a Conservative government.
Although The Demon Headmaster: Total Control (published by Oxford University Press this month) is not explicitly political, the effects of successive Tory government education reforms since the last book in 2002 weigh heavy on the plot and pupils.
Oxford University Press
First up, the Demon Headmaster’s school is now an academy. “Hazelbrook Academy: Where every student is a star”, reads the school’s big blue sign, a corporate replacement of its old wooden gates.
Fans of the books or the Nineties BBC TV adaptation won’t recognise this new school. It has a buzzer, glossy gates, sky-blue memory sticks for parents, an “Information hub” instead of the library, and a member of staff with a badge that reads “Deputy Head, Public Relations”. There are livestreams, video conferences, drones and holograms.
It is a story of dystopian academisation. The premise is that students are forced – via hypnosis, it turns out – to excel at activities for which they don’t have a natural aptitude. But they are only really being made to mimic success for their megalomaniac headmaster, and the benefit of the visiting Prime Minister. For example, mathsy Ethan is brainwashed into displaying impressive football skills; but he can’t remember a thing when un-hypnotised.
The BBC adaptation
While the title character remains the same enigmatic, pale presence – with no real name and a rather naïve intention to control the population via a single school – the cast of heroic children is different. The classic characters, Dinah, Lloyd and Harvey, have been replaced by Lizzie, Ethan and Tyler. And the retro palmtops – through which they’re controlled by hypnotic octopus graphics in the 1985 book The Prime Minister’s Brain – have been swapped for mind-interfering drones.
“I thought actually there is a lot to say now,” Gillian Cross tells me, when I ask why she’s brought the Demon Headmaster back after 15 years. “I really don’t think one should write books with messages, but schools are so different now from how they used to be that I got excited about the Demon Headmaster being back in a school.”
Gillian Cross. Oxford University Press
We meet for a cup of tea at Oxford University Press’s grand neoclassical building on the edge of the city centre. Its green grounds gleam in the sun. For the author of one of the darkest children’s stories, Cross looks wholesome in a red, green and orange-embroidered waistcoat and a necklace of chunky wooden beads. But she is all but cosy. Her conversations with teachers, parents and pupils over the years have made her furious about the government’s interference in our education system.
“Since I wrote the first books, education has become politicised to such an extent that it doesn’t seem at all bizarre that the Prime Minister should be invited to view what looks like the model of the perfect school,” she tells me. “He [the Demon Headmaster] has the possibility of turning out the workforce that the country requires, which he sees as blatantly the purpose of education.”
Like Michael Gove? Cross raises her eyebrows. “There are lots of political points I could have made but I don’t think you should be doing things in children’s books that are over the heads of children… obviously the Headmaster would love to have an academy chain, clearly.”
When texting hit the Demon Headmaster
Cross, who has four grown-up children, lives in North Dorset with her husband. She is 71, and they have just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Her mother was a secondary school English teacher. Through her family, children and writing, she has been “in touch” with what goes on in UK schools for decades. And she doesn’t like everything she sees.
She feels teachers are too restricted by a government burdening them with administration and box-ticking – and pupils are pressured to be what they’re not, with tests like SATs.
“I was quite interested in the pressure that there is now on children in school to succeed at things that they may not have any innate sympathy with,” she says, referring to the plot of her latest book. “Their agendas are drawn up for them and they have to jump through hoops.”
The original Demon Headmaster story. Oxford University Press
Cross also believes social media is an added pressure for schoolchildren – a new development since she wrote her first books. She hasn’t included social media explicitly in her new book, so as not to date it – but she couldn’t avoid texting.
“There’s the whole thing so hated by authors of fiction of mobile phones, which are just a pain in the neck,” she sighs. “It’s quite difficult to have suspense because, if you have people separated, well why didn’t they phone each other? Then if you do use mobile phones, then why is this phone not flat now? Why haven’t they charged it? It’s just endless.”
The intervening period since Cross’s last Demon Headmaster book and 2017 saw a Harry Potter-fuelled boom in fantasy fiction for children. Was Cross worried her audience would no longer be interested in a reality-based villain?
“There was a time when I felt unfashionable,” she nods. “But I was fortunate enough always to get my books published. I’ve never written fantasy, because it just doesn’t interest me to write.”
And she hopes that basing her story in a modern-day school will give children and parents a chance to consider what schools are for. “I’m not sure it’s the kind of book people reflect on,” she smiles. “But it’s probably time for all of us to be thinking more basic things about education. Why are we paying all this money and doing this thing? What would success for your children mean?”
She pulls a pile of Demon Headmaster books towards her to begin signing.
“The issue is that education is so much more centralised and dominated by the government than it used to be, and that’s such an opportunity for the Headmaster,” she says, with a wry grin. “If you can get control of the Prime Minister or the cabinet or something, then you can exert huge power over education in a way that I don’t think would have been true 35 years ago, which is when I wrote the first book.”
The Demon Headmaster: Total Control by Gillian Cross is out on Oxford University Press