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Cinderella shall go to the ball

Ministers are fond of referring to further education as the Cinderella sector. In this little play, Graham Jones takes them at their word and introduces a familiar set of characters worthy of an appearance in any pantomime

Characters in order ofself-importance: Buttons: AOC Ugly Sisters: The HE sector and the schools sector Prince Charming: The Prime Minister Baroness Hardup: The Baroness herself Cinderella: The FE sector Noises Off: NATFHE Professor Who: Who?

The Old Retainer: Local education authorities The Ball: the land of milk and honey, where the Ugly Sisters live (It is a miserable Friday afternoon in December and darkness has set in early at the DFEEE (Department for Education, Education and Education). A minister sits alone behind a large and expensive desk, head in hands, a picture of despair. It is Baroness Hardup, founder of the New New Labour movement).

Baroness Hardup: Bills, bills, nothing but bills, more bills and demands for money. Cinderella is a bottomless pit; bring her in to see me. (At this, a figure emerges from the shadows and, with repeated bows and humble hand-wringing, glides away to do the bidding of his mistress. It is Professor Who, timelord-in-chief, who plays no further part in this.) (Enter Cinderella, in rags, carrying a pile of circulars, reports and requests to take part in a survey, requests to help the Further Education Development Agency do something - anything; learning agreements; records of achievement, charters, and statements of special need. She is unshod, undernourished and clearly sickening for something nasty. She walks with a limp, because one leg is much higher than the other. On her head she wears a new hat, bearing the motto: "Roger Ward is innocent".) Baroness Hardup: Another request for money, wretch. You don't earn what we give you already. What do you do round here, anyway?

Cinderella: I clean up after everyone else; I take on the jobs no one else will do; I do twice as much as the Ugly Sisters; I right wrongs, slay the dragons of ignorance, climb every mountain, ford every sea ...

(Noises Off continue the song - "to dream the impossible dream ...") Baroness Hardup: Another wage cut for you my girl and another 10 per cent on your workload.

Cinderella: But you already give the others more money than me. The two Ugly Sisters get much more than me. They have easier jobs, take in fewer lodgers, have better accommodation, don't produce results like mine, and still you give them more money.

Baroness Hardup: Impudence! Don't talk to me about equity. Some of your kids live in London and you give them more pocket money than the rest. Why do you do it?

Cinderella: They've always had more money than anyone else. They have more to lose and that makes them vulnerable. They need protecting, so Professor Who gives them more money.

Baroness Hardup: So having money makes them vulnerable, and to make them less vulnerable you give them more money?

Cinderella: Professor Who calls it a North Circular argument.

Baroness Hardup: Well, it's exactly the same for the Ugly Sisters. They've always had more than you, so how can they manage on less now? You'll have to have another wage cut to pay for them. Anyway, back to work with you. There's plenty of workshy layabouts outside the front door. So here's the Deal: succeed where everyone else has failed; train them for jobs that don't exist; do it for less than you do it for already and do it by tomorrow. Oh, and do try to be just a little bit innovative this time.

Cinderella: But I wanted to go to the ball; everyone else is going.

Baroness Hardup: No ball for you my girl; you've too much work to do (exits with a high-pitched, aristocratic laugh).

Cinderella: I did so want to go to the ball; I know people will love me if only they could see me; if only they knew I existed; if only I could get my message across (begins to weep quietly). Why don't people love me?

(A stretch limo arrives outside the front door; a hybrid monster, product of an interesting union, steps out. The left half is clearly a primitive executioner. The muscular arm wields an axe and bears a tattoo: kill NATFHE. The other half is gentler, politically correct and bears a large badge: caring is sharing. It is Buttons, self-styled defender of anyone who has eight grand to spare.) Buttons (the executioner is asleep; the caring side is active): Hey Cinders, who loves you baby? Whassamatter, kid, look, it's me Buttons, I love you so much I want to look after you, speak up for you. I know you so well I don't even need to ask what you think. And all I ask in return is a modest retainer and the odd display of adoration. It must be love, why else would I do it?

Noises off: Beware Cinderella, remember the legend of the silver book and the monster that destroyed it; he is not dead, he merely slumbers.

(Begins to sing: "Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I dream of, when life was as easy as pie ..." At the first strains of the music, Buttons leaps in the air and turns round; the executioner is awake. With a bloodcurdling cry and wildly gyrating axe it storms towards the Noises Off. Eventually it returns, bloodstained and with the caring side restored. There are no more Noises Off.) Cinderella: Well, that was impressive, if a touch unnecessary. But can you get me to the ball?

Buttons: Hey, hold on, some things are more difficult than others. You pay me a measly eight grand a year and for that you want miracles; sorry babe but you need more than Buttons for that, and I know just the man.

(There is a flash of light, and a giant fireworks display of Tony Blair illuminates the entire arena; as the smile fades from the fireworks face and the smoke clears, a figure is revealed, with a dog by his side. It is the Fairy Godfather, the New Fairy Godfather, with his new dog, Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. ) Fairy Godfather: Hey, Cinders, remember me? We had a little thing going once. Remember Barnsley? You were one hell of a broad then. What's wrong now?

Cinderella: I want to go to the Ball, but I've no money, one leg higher than the other, no clothes and Buttons is the only person I could go with. It's hopeless!

Fairy Godfather: No problem! You shall go to the Ball, here's Pounds 83 - how's that for generosity?

Cinderella: But Buttons says I need Pounds 220.

Fairy Godfather: Well, you'll have to get the rest by magic. You think I'm a fairy godmother or something?

Cinderella: Okay, Pounds 83 is better than nothing.

Fairy Godfather: Great, well give me Pounds 45 then.

Cinderella: What?

Fairy Godfather: Give me Pounds 45. Thanks. Now, here's the Pounds 45 that I owe you and another Pounds 25 you are owed in back pay and a tenner from the lottery win we didn't tell you about and then another three quid we pinched from somewhere else. Professor Who will explain it all, don't worry. That's Pounds 83 in all.

Cinderella: That won't cover the cost of the taxi.

Fairy Godfather: Stop whingeing. Look, over there - six mice and a pumpkin. Luxury. In my day we went everywhere on a single rat and half a melon. Use your imagination.

(The scene fades; the curtain closes and bears a motto in blood: "James Paice, RIP: don't come back; all is not forgiven".) (The curtain opens on a glittering scene at Sanctuary Buildings, with all the old tired jokes about hanging gardens and atria. Cinderella is resplendent in a magenta and white dress. She is talking to a smitten Prince Charming.) Prince Charming: Where have you been all my life? Why did nobody tell me about you? What a slogan it would have been: Education, education and more education!

Cinderella: Further, not more.

Prince Charming: Same thing in my book. I want more and more and more - 500,000 at least.

Cinderella: More for less, I suppose?

Prince Charming: I knew it; you are just like the rest. You don't want me for what I am, you just want my money. I mean, look, who will take my poor, my huddled masses and make them economically active again?

Cinderella: I will.

Prince Charming: You will, and for less money? Why?

Cinderella: Because I think I love you.

Prince Charming: Oh, how wonderful. You are just like everyone else! Tell me have you ever thought of merging? I can show you how it's done.

Cinderella: I think I'd like that; and after we've merged, can we sit round the fire and plan our future, like they used to in the old days?

Prince Charming: Let me show you how to merge and you can plan to your heart's content. I'll even bring back my faithful Old Retainer to help you.

(They turn and climb the stairs in the background. What follows is what happens to every attractive innocent in the hands of a wily politician. A series of mergers takes place. Out of the shadows, rubbing his hands with glee, steps the Old Retainer.) Old Retainer: Impudent Whore. I'll teach her to turn her back on me. I'll show her what an efficiency gain really is, unless, of course, she's nice to me. (Exits laughing hysterically. A clock strikes midnight!) (Oh, yes, I forgot, children: they all live happily ever after. )

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