School Play

Alex MacKeith
Emma Hall, Joanna Nash, Nik Holttum Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Ann Ogbomo, Fola Evans-Akingbola and Oliver Dench Credit: Guy Bell
Ann Ogbomo and Oliver Dench Credit: Guy Bell
Ann Ogbomo and Fola Evans-Akingbola Credit: Guy Bell

Step out of teaching for even the shortest period and you are likely to miss a wave of educational reforms intended to do exactly the same thing as the last fifty reforms. You will also miss the stress and confusion that usually accompanies these reforms. It’s no wonder there is such a high level of teacher turnover in the schools and why head teachers these days rarely wait for their official retirement date before getting out of the job.

Alex MacKeith's thoughtful often witty School Play shows you a lot of what is wrong with the existing setup by following one day’s events in the office of Jo (Ann Ogbomo) a head teacher. It’s a day when she is faced with regular tasks ranging from attending meetings with local officials to making decisions about absent pupils.

But this day is going to be especially wearing because it’s the day the school gets the results of its Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) which will be used to determine if the school has improved and what funds it should be allocated.

The danger facing the school is clear when Jo goes to a Local Authority meeting attended by a private sector predator who "smells blood" of a school that can be scooped up as an academy.

Ann Ogbomo gives a fine, measured, authoritative performance as the hard-working head teacher under pressure who still finds time to be compassionate about the children in her care.

Almost every issue that crops up seems to be affected by funding. The prospect of three children not turning up for a school trip to the Natural History Museum means its cost might not be covered. Then there is the sudden news that the asphalt by the school gates needs replacing.

Fola Evans-Akingbola is engaging as the efficient twenty-six-year-old secretary Lara who spends her spare time studying to become a teacher. On this particular day she is also fending off the charms of the twenty-one-year-old school tutor Tom (Oliver Dench) with whom she had spent the previous night.

The day reaches a crisis when one of the children on the school trip collapses as a result of diabetes, and the SATs results are revealed to be insufficient to get the necessary funding.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Jo and Lara discover that Tom the tutor the school governors had insisted on employing to give extra support to those taking SATs hadn’t been teaching to the SATs.

Instead of using his sessions as a revision, he had been trying to get the children to enjoy themselves through learning. He says it is the way it happened in his background at Winchester School and Oxford. What’s more, he has told the kids that the tests "don’t mean anything".

Jo dismisses what he has done as the selfish behaviour of a privileged snob who simply did his own thing because the requirements of the SATs were not interesting enough to him.

Alex MacKeith’s powerful play makes us care about the issues and what happens to the very believable characters, all of whom by the end of the show persist in trying to make things better for the children.

It is unlikely that anyone thinks SATs are interesting or even measure anything more than how well you take a test. Unfortunately, like Ofsted inspections, funding cuts, and a variety of other demands on schools, as long as they exist they will continue to inflict damage on the lives of all those who work and study in education.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna