Dramatising the horrors of Free Schools and their famous founders

Francis Gilbert's picture
 9
I've just spent a very entertaining evening at the Bush theatre watching Little Platoons, an extremely entertaining and thought-provoking play about a bunch of buffoons setting up a Free School in West London. Sound familiar? The chief character is Nick Orme, a balding, embittered "plonker" -- he is very deliberately characterised in this fashion -- who likes to pontificate about education at great length with a glass of white wine in his hand. He and his wife are determined to get government funding for their Free School in order that their children can be educated separately from the majority of the local community who go to the Mandela school. Orme enlists the help of a middle-class mother, Rachel, who is a music teacher at Mandela; she is initially dubious but she is vulnerable because her marriage has just ended and she's worried about her 12-year-old son, who is having a difficult time at Mandela. After some torturous deliberations, she decides to accept Orme's offer of becoming the headteacher of the new Free school.

The play follows her trials and tribulations as she gradually realises that Orme's claims to be setting up the school in the interests of the local community are a complete sham. Along the way, Orme alienates everyone: his wife, his black clerk, and, of course, at the end of the play Rachel. The ending is very effective because Rachel and her estranged former partner realise that the best thing that they can do for themselves, their son and the whole community is to support their local school, Mandela. The play isn't without its faults: the depictions of the Mandela pupils were very cliched, showing them to be no more than silly "chavs" -- not my experience of the vast majority of inner-city comprehensive children.

The playwright, Steve Waters, has written a fantastically contemporary play which bristles with lines that must be spoken about schools up and down the country. In particular, I really felt he captured the "hidden" conversations that I suspect many "Free Schoolers" have. After learning that the Shepherd's Bush Free School will be over-subscribed and that they will have to apply over-subscription criteria, Orme says: "You know how it works out there -- only the loser schools do it strictly by the books". Having been drawn into Orme's way of thinking, Rachel complains that if poor pupils are their only pupils, "I simply think we'll get nowhere". Pav, the token Asian on-board with the project, now rebels, "None of this was ever meant to be about freezing out poor kids, unlucky kids, far as I was concerned, it was meant to be about taking everyone with us, giving them the better stuff." Pav walks out shortly after this.

At the end of the play, Polly, an advisor from the DfE, arrives to give the school the final go-ahead. Having listened to shambolic presentations from Nick, Rachel, some local children and watched in horror as Rachel's ex-husband tries to sabotage the whole project by demonstrating the local community is against it, she says: "The truth of the matter is we consider this school will transform educational opportunities in this borough for all the children of this borough, that it provides a chance to give parents such as yourself a genuine choice and essentially I don't think this is likely to change minds."

The message at the end of the play though is clear: Rachel intends to return to the Mandela to teach and will send her child back there because, in the end, it's the right thing to do.
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Comments

Melissa Benn's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 10:42

Brilliantly succinct summary Francis. It is a very good play. Well informed, up to the minute. Funny, scathing about the appalling pretensions and hidden agendas of a certain section of the middle class. But there were stereotypes on the other side. The portrayal of the pupils from the local comprehensive surely confirmed the prejudices of those audience members looking for reasons to support Free Schools and escape their local school.

But the play made me realise that while no more than a handful of Free Schools will eventually succeed ( and most of these will be taken over my private companies; another semi hidden agenda) the political damage they do will be longer lasting. THe truth is, they are the latest in a long history of ideological assaults on the idea of common schools for all our children ( they were called multi-laterals, when considered by the Spens Report in 1938) starting with the Black Papers written by the new right in the 60s.
Whether they succeed or not in today's landscape they help the government and the new right in education to make the case, in the words of the lead Free Schooler in the play, Nick Orme, that ' comprehensives are a machine for dumbing down.'

By the way, the incredibly articulate, well informed and utterly obnoxious Orme believed he had been cheated by the education system. And where had this fully grown brat gone to school? My old school, Holland Park! That was one of several moments in the play when I nearly heckled from the back of the theatre - well, the Bush isn't really big enough to have a back, but you know what I mean - especially when I heard the nervous, amused titters from the audience. Holland Park was a terrific school. Orme would have been lucky to go there and he certainly wouldn't have ended up like that if he had...............

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 11:15

It's a pity the play will only be seen by a few people. Not for the first time do I regret the passing of "Spitting Image".

Interesting, Melissa, that the play is well informed when it suits you but ill-informed when it doesn't. What makes you think that the portrayal of the pupils from the local compehensive was a stereotype but the portrayal of the parents and teachers setting up the school wasn't? Perhaps you just had your prejudices confirmed?

Melissa Benn's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 12:10

Perhaps the difference lies here, Charlie; the parent group is presenting itself as democratically inclusive and non-elitist; indeed as Polly from the Ministry emphasises, it is very important that they appear to be so. So, the end portrayal of the group as rather more exclusive/unpleasant than it appears serves an important function in the play. The pupils on the other hand are not claiming to be anything but themselves, except they are not quite 'themselves' in my view. As Rachel said in the first scene, many of these demonised kids are much smarter and more interesting than most people and this ( otherwise excellent) play allows.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 15:12

The only element missing from the play was a pupil from Latymer wandering by, reading a Shakespeare sonnet or a piece of Latin verse. Maybe someone will write a play about a group of teenagers who go to their local comprehensive schools and then into Russell Group universities, while their private school peers end up stressed out through pressure of work, hospitalized with anorexia or high as kites on drugs no one else can afford, in homes left vacant at the weekends by affluent parents going off to the country.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 17:20

Yes, there's an excellent play/film to be made about the horrors of the private school system, which I know quite a bit about: endemic sniping, endless entrance tests, new forms of "fagging" which I know go on, snobbery and competition between parents, unaccountable teachers shouting at their pupils (and parents) and delivering deadly dull lessons which mean private tutoring is needed, lots of drug taking, hierarchies established over who has the most money, multiple breakdowns and visits to rehab. I've heard all these stories in recent years and seen quite a few first-hand.

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 21/02/2011 - 22:52

I quite enjoyed it and, I have to say, didn't really recognise myself in the Nick Orme character, in spite of the fact that he has all the best lines. I think it was more nuanced than you're giving it credit for, Francis. The play you describe sounds like a piece of anti-free schools agitprop, whereas Little Platoons was more interesting than that.

Having said that, there were various respects in which it seemed to regurgitate common misconceptions about free schools put about their opponents.

For instance, it depicted the trustees of the free school in the play as having absolute discretion over which applicants to make offers to and proposing to make them all sit a Musical Aptitude Test to sort the sheep from the goats. As I'm sure the well-informed visitors to this website know, a taxpayer-funded school cannot change its admissions criteria after opening for applications.

I thought it was curious that the author of the play, who clearly has a good deal of sympathy for comprehensive schools, seemed to believe that any state secondary school which is forced to accept all-comers is doomed to become bog standard. Paradoxically, the founders of the West London Free School have more faith in public education than the playwright. We believe that with an academically rigorous curriculum, a dedicated staff, and with tried-and-tested systems in place to improve attainment across the board, we can create a "comprehensive grammar" irrespective of the background or ability of our pupils. This isn't an article of faith – schools like Mossbourne Academy prove it can be done – but in order to win over the sceptics it won't be enough to get outstanding results. We need to do everything we can to ensure our pupils are as representative of the local area as possible otherwise we'll be accused of only admitting a "self-selected" sample. In Little Platoons, the trustees of the free school are shown trying to flout the Admissions Code to ensure applicants from the local housing estate aren't offered places. I went to see the play with other members of the WLFS Steering Committee and in the bar afterwards we laughed about how inaccurate that scene was. We all wanted to leap up on stage and say to the actors, "Tell those kids to apply to our school if you don't want them. We'll bite their arms off."

Jon De Maria's picture
Thu, 24/02/2011 - 09:12

Indeed Toby, I agree, I didnt think it was as quite as black and white as Francis makes out. We also got along to see the play and had a great night. Maybe old age is fogging my memory but I didnt think the teacher had decided to go back to her local comp at all at the end of the play? It wasn't quite the polemic Francis is making it out to be. But then again the huntsman and the woodcutter both see the same forest differently. And I am sure Steve Waters will post here himself if I am wrong! Anyway, for the record, this is what the blurb says from the Bush website about the play:

"A group of West London parents are driven by desperation to take the new government up on their offer and start their own ‘free school'. They want to create an education that their children will enjoy rather than endure. But as they find their lives given over to a disturbing version of the Big Society, their fervour turns to panic. Free schools are getting ready to transform from policy idea to classroom reality. But what do we know about them? This dark new comedy takes the pulse of Coalition Britain, by exploring what the retreat of the state and the growth of people power might actually mean. Moving from satiric comedy to poignant family drama, it asks why we're all so obsessed with education and what happens when we get what we wish for".

Why are we all so obsessed with education? It couldnt be that the current system is failing too many of our children? Lets all move to Finland.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 25/02/2011 - 08:41

The current system is not failing "too many of our children". If it were, then English pupils would not have scored higher than their European peers in Maths and Science (TIMSS 2007). The Government justifies its reforms by saying that UK education has fallen badly behind its competitors, but this stance can only be upheld by using the 2000 UK figures which have been discounted by the OECD.

Comparing 2006 and 2009 data, which would be more honest, does show a drop in our league table position as follows:

2006: Reading 17/57 2009: 25/65
2006: Maths: 24/57 2009: 28/65
2006: Science 14/57 2009: 16/65

More countries took part in the 2009 survey, including top scoring countries Shanghai and Singapore - this could account for our lower position. League table position, however, only tells part of the story. More importantly, the raw scores of UK students were so little changed as to be statistically insignificant. This means that the performance of UK students had remained constant between 2006 and 2009.

What the Government doesn't say is that the 2009 scores for Reading and Maths were "not statistically significantly different from the OECD average" and the score for Science was "statistically significantly ABOVE the OECD average". Also in the reading subscales UK students scored ABOVE average in "reflect and evaluate" and "non-continuous texts". So the picture isn't as bleak as the Government would like to pretend.

That is not to say that there is nothing wrong with the UK system (constant changes, targets, over-testing, league tables which pillory schools whose intake is skewed towards the bottom end and so on). But these problems will not be solved by the Govegrind reforms. I agree with Jon De Maria: let's take on board many of the ideas which make Finland a world leader.

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