Q&A

Can My Dangerous Magic School Be a Badly Run Public School?

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So, I have a few short stories happening in a magic school (two actually) and both of them are not very safe. They have leaky classrooms, dangerous, and sometimes cursed equipment, and unsafe lessons. Bullying from other students is common, but that’s the point. The schools are government-funded, and the government is corrupt, and most of the magicians have better things to do than teach. Basically, it’s the magical equivalent of a badly run public school. No one tries to pretend otherwise. Any advice on 1, keeping it non-cliche, and 2, making it clear that this is a bad example of a school?

Thanks.

-Kat

Hi Kat,

I don’t know what fits into the short stories you’re doing, so I’ll just offer advice on building a world like this in general. Then you can set whatever stories you want there.

I think what you’ve described has a lot of potential. The key thing to keep in mind is that when public schools are bad in that way, it’s not generally because they are run by corrupt or incompetent assholes, it’s because they’re dreadfully underfunded. And if they’re bad like that, only those who are desperate and in poverty would attend them. To make the problems at the school feel natural instead of plot convenient, you’d want to integrate that sense of poverty into the setting and characters.

  • A corrupt government could explain why the school is so underfunded, but the government could also just be underfunded itself. It’s unlikely the school would want students to get hurt, but it wouldn’t be able to pay to replace things that have fallen apart and are now dangerous.
  • As a result of the public schools being underfunded and becoming bad, any parents with enough money would send their kids to private school, and that would make the issue worse because those parents would no longer have a strong incentive to support and fix the public schools.
  • Most of the kids attending would either be orphans or have non-magical parents. Maybe they’d have a magical parent with tons of debt and wages garnished by creditors, but most magical adults would have plenty of money because magic.
  • For these impoverished students, attending the dangerous school would be a worthwhile risk because it gives them a path out of poverty. Their choice to attend will be more believable if magic is useless without years of schooling. Otherwise, they could earn enough money without risking their lives.
  • Qualified teachers are also less likely to want to work at this school, because they’ll be underpaid and working in terrible conditions. They could work at a private school instead. However, some good teachers would stick it out for the students’ sake. Even so, there could be way too few teachers for the number of students, keeping them from giving their students enough protection even when they’re trying. There are lots of real world examples of problems at underfunded schools to give you inspiration.

The class divisions in a setting like this are great for creating conflict. Your protagonist would be an underdog at the get-go just by attending a public school. The downside is that you wouldn’t have a Draco Malfoy at the school. (Maybe his family has lost their fortune and he doesn’t want to admit that, though everyone would know because he’s at a public school). So I would look for opportunities for your scrappy students to interact with the rich kids at the neighboring, much safer private schools. There could be inter-school activities and competitions where the students of your magic school would be at a disadvantage against other schools.

If you go with this poverty framework, your setting will be a little dark, but there’s no risk of it being clichéd.

I don’t know if that’s what you were going for, but I hope it gives you some food for thought.

Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Erynus

    A good twist using the Malfoy approach could be to send him from a rich school to the poor founded school as a punishment, making him the underdog, while he tries to pass without all the privileges. The whole concept of being at a public school as a punishment (which people in real life actually thinks) can add a layer of criticism.

    • Juan

      That’s a really good idea ! Lots of potential for him to discover the reality of the situation for the poor class, maybe decide to dedicate his effort to fixing the inequality. He could even be the protagonist !

    • Maria

      … but… wouldn’t that still give him an advantage over everyone else in the public school? He would still be rich, and his family would still be well connected and you’d have to make up a really good reason for his family to leave him there for more than a week. Because they are endangering his life. Being rich would be an immense advantage, aka lots of “candy” in this setting, and you would have to balance it out (preferably without making the “poor kids” evil), while keeping the logic of how the world works. Also, money can solve a looot of problems and therefore, easily break the plot. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be quite hard to write in a satisfying way.

    • Maria

      …wait. I just remembered the terrible terrible dangerous school in Bleak Expectations, full of malnourished kids. The twist – all the kids were heirs of wealthy families, and said families wanted to get rid of them before they came of age. The school had a reputation… So in a dark absurd comedy setting, it worked

  2. Cay Reet

    I was a little confused at first, since ‘public schools’ in the UK are essentially what private schools are in the rest of the world (and magic schools always make me think of Harry Potter or The Worst Witch, so UK schools).

    I think that could be a great setting overall, especially with the tips from Chris. There must definitely be a motivation for people to go to that public school, despite a bad reputation, because otherwise, why bother? Mages making a lot of money is, of course, an argument, especially when you’re from a poor family and want to lead a better life.

  3. LeeEsq

    I think this really depends on what magic can do in the system. The more powerful the magic, the more any modern government is going to want to keep it as regulated as nuclear energy or anything else that is really dangerous. Having a poorly run school teach future walking talking atomic bombs is not going to be seen as a good idea by most people. If magic wasn’t anywhere near the walking talking atomic bomb level then I can see many governments being about less careful about training mages.

  4. Mrs. Obed Marsh

    So it’s Clortho Inner City Wizarding School!

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eFoX0i4Sm_0

  5. William

    “it’s not generally because they are run by corrupt or incompetent assholes, it’s because they’re dreadfully underfunded.”
    This is a simplistic and mostly incorrect statement.

  6. Kat

    So, I had asked this question, and thinking back, I should have elaborated on how the magic system played into that problem. See, it works like this:
    there are magical creatures that have varying degrees of power, over various domains (Weather, protection, practical jokes, stone) and they will make contracts with people in exchange for different things, or the completion of some tasks. Some powerfull creatures (namely the Canias) have used this to become very important political players, and take control of some branches of government. Powerfull creatures are very choosy with who they pick, usually children of already influential people. They have the better school, while people with contracts to creatures like boboskos, or, gumiaky, are out of luck on the educational department.

  7. Jack Ericson

    I mean, Hogwarts is a dangerous, poorly run school that is believed to be funded by the government (there are theories about this- among other things, they explain how teachers are paid if there is no tuition).

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