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.