By Gove, they're on to something

1st August 2014 at 01:00
Stormy educational climate sparks Edinburgh Fringe plays

Imagine a world in which all Michael Gove's ideas about education - however flippantly uttered - have become government policy. Consequently, schools are entirely about results: there is no space for the performing arts. There are no theatres and no modern art galleries. Instead, there are endless reruns of Les Misrables.

This is the dystopian reality of Who's Afraid of Michael Gove?, a new play being performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The play depicts a world in which the erstwhile education secretary has become prime minister.

"The pupils are Gove's robots," said Simon Roche, whose A-level theatre studies students at St Edward's School in Oxford have written and staged the play. "Gove's robots are very good at literacy and numeracy and the sciences, but that doesn't mean they're interesting people. They have no charisma or character, because that can't be put on a spreadsheet and quantified."

Eventually, the play's hero is redeemed through his starring role in a piece of serious theatre. "The process of theatre-making makes him a better person," Mr Roche said. "The message is that you need the creative arts in order to create interesting people."

He is unconcerned about the effect of Michael Gove's recent departure from the Department for Education on the success of the play. "We think he's on his way to becoming prime minister, so it actually plays into our hands entirely," he said. "And, of course, his education policies are still there."

Indeed, the government's latest university fee increase will be weighing on the minds of sixth-formers everywhere as they complete their Ucas (Universities and College Admissions Service) applications - the central theme of two other productions at this year's festival.

In Ucas, a teacher forces five recalcitrant students to sit down and write their personal statements. While arguing over this task - and the point of going to university at all - they break into impromptu song and dance numbers. In pound;50K in Debt they sing: "This is pound;50,000 that we have to spendWith no guarantee of a job at the end."

"It's one of our most jolly songs," said producer Gwenni Hawkins. "There are jazz hands and all that. It's really fun."

The second play, Forty-Five Minutes, deals with the comic absurdities of form-filling. The director, Matthew Drew, says that the play reminds him of filling out his own university application form a year and a half ago. Other members of the cast are still at school.

"There are people crying about it and swearing left, right and centre," he said. "This thing, that's getting you more and more frustrated."

Neither Mr Drew nor Ms Hawkins is surprised by the appearance of two Ucas-based plays at this year's festival. "When the change in fees came about, people needed one year to be a bit pissed off, one year to write about it and one year to organise getting it up to the fringe," Ms Hawkins said.

The Fringe festival, which starts today and runs until 25 August, also includes several other education-related shows. In Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues, an unhinged music teacher treats her audience of "students" to a series of school-related songs. Burning Books, meanwhile, tells the story of an inner-city secondary suffering under the budget cuts enforced by the current government.

And O is for Ofsted brings all-singing, all-dancing cynicism to staffroom bureaucracy. The musical is set in a secondary school in the run-up to an Ofsted inspection. As an indication of what follows, the musical numbers include a song about teachers drinking in the staffroom.

Several cast members are still at school; others are young teachers. Elements of the show therefore draw on real-life experience. For example, it features teachers who try slightly too hard to empathise with their students.

"It doesn't always work," said writer and director Sophy Layzell. "And then pupils judge you for it. I hope the show relates to everyone. It's for anybody who's been to school or who's at school, or who has children at school."

Schools centre stage

More education-themed shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe:

Life in the Bus Lane

A show about attractive geography teachers, musicals and Fifty Shades of Grey, performed by a supply teacher and his comic sidekick.

Grave Invaders

Battle-rapping teacher and YouTube star Mark Grist takes a verbal tour of the graves of some of Britain's best-loved poets.

Mark Cooper-Jones: Geography Teacher

Former teacher Cooper-Jones loves geography, and takes the subject very seriously. Others, however, seem to find this funny.


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today