There are a number of ways of gauging the State of the Nation, including a government’s response to domestic poverty, its healthcare and its provisions for education. While there isn’t an abundance of plays about education, they have been increasing in popularity as a barometer for how today’s values affects the people of tomorrow. Cue Alex MacKeith’s School Play.
It has in recent years been commonplace for U.S.-styled SAT scores to be adopted in the UK. However, what’s perhaps not so well-known is its inclusion here for children of primary school age. Directed by Charlie Parham, School Play addresses this issue, mostly from the points of view of three characters: Jo (Ann Ogbomo) the headteacher, Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola) her PA and Tom (Oliver Dench) an agency-supplied tutor.
In some ways School Play is told very much from the point of view of Lara, as she has to correspond with the education local authorities board of governors, and keep Jo abreast of all the meetings and developments. As the daughter of the former headmaster of the school, she has a unique perspective of the present and its continuity with the past.
As someone who hasn’t had the easiest of upbringings, Jo’s rise to the post of headteacher isn’t one of ambition, but one of vocation. She knows first-hand how education can improve the quality of life and offer choices, and what life is like for those without it.
As a product of ‘privilege’ Tom’s OxBridge background is something of an anathema to his present surroundings. However it isn’t this which ‘sets him apart’ and not fit in, but his proclivity to not teach anything on the syllabus which the pupils will be tested on…
While almost never seen in the play, the aptitude and welfare of primary school children drives the narrative, both in terms of what the local authorities expect with their ‘tick box mentality’ and the school’s ethos. The percentage of those ‘below average’ is how all schools are assessed, so to be a ‘weak link’ is not on the cards. Understandably, attendance and good grades across the board are desired for funding. While Jo has a ‘Marines’ attitude of ‘no one gets left behind’, failure for her school to reach a quorum of average/above average grades will automatically lead to it having its status changed to an ‘academy’, where corporate Trusts with their own agendas get to dictate syallbuses…
While all of this is going on, there are moments of levity, especially with the nascent, ‘covert’ relationship of Lara and Tom. Asides from providing a momentary respite to some of the more serious aspects of the play, their ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ serves to show what they bring to the table education-wise and what their respective legacies will be.
As for Jo, her imminent divorce only serves to remind her you can’t control everything, even with effort and force of will. However, just because her personal life may be in disarray, but it doesn’t mean every last option has been used to save the school.
If School Play teaches us anything, it is that those who are on the ‘frontline’ – in this case teachers – face an insurmountabke task, trying to perform their job, as well as adhering to a tick box culture and in some cases, be de facto social workers. It would be so easy to give up and leave it to ‘someone else’, but who will educate our children then..?
© Michael Davis 2017
School Play runs at Southwark Theatre until 25th February 2017.