Meet the parents: curtain goes up on a tale of 'free school' future

7th January 2011 at 00:00
Playwright was stirred to action after seeing the 'little platoons' about to 'get their hands on the state system'

The first free school is yet to open its doors. But a theatrical response to the controversial Conservative policy has already emerged in one of two new plays examining the "tension and anxiety" of state education under the Coalition government.

The Schools Season at west London's Bush Theatre opens this month, pairing a portrayal of the pressures of teaching in a failing comprehensive with a second play exploring what happens when parents set up their own schools as alternatives.

As a former grammar school pupil, Steve Waters has first-hand knowledge of the kind of education the parents in his play Little Platoons want to offer. But it was a "quite negative, anachronistic" experience for the playwright, who describes his latest work as a sceptical look at the free schools policy.

Its title comes from a term - coined by 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke - used by enthusiasts for the Conservatives' "big society" to describe the self-motivated groups of citizens they want to take up the role of the state.

Mr Waters, who taught English in the 1980s, saw these "platoons" gather at a Spectator pre-general election conference on free schools last year, an experience he likened to watching an army preparing for battle.

"It was a very shocking day," he said. "Having been in education in the past, it felt like a very different group of people were about to get their hands on the state system."

The play it inspired features an idealistic comprehensive teacher who faces a dilemma about where to educate her son and is persuaded to join a group of parents setting up a free school.

"My parents' generation tended to be happy to send their children to the nearest school and let them get on with it," Mr Waters said. "But today, parents are feeling thoroughly responsible for every aspect of their child's life."

He explores the ratcheting up of "tension and anxiety" that has moved parents from worrying about where their children go to school to wanting to actually run one - an idea he sees as both "dangerous and appealing".

The kind of school such parents want to avoid might include the failing secondary featured in the The Knowledge by John Donnelly.

The central character is Zoe, an NQT weighed down by poor behaviour, advances from the head of science, the need to produce test results for league tables and the pressure of bureaucracy.

"I don't see this as a political play," Mr Donnelly said. "But I am hoping I have presented something that asks useful questions about the pressure that students and teachers are put under and whether there needs to be better pastoral care - something that can overlooked in the drive to hit targets."

He drew from a decade of experience working in schools across London, Essex and Kent as a playwright and charity worker. But Mr Donnelly opted not to portray some of the worst excesses of pupil behaviour.

"I was wary that there are so many stories about terrible things happening in schools, which you could put in a play and can be exciting, but can also be quite voyeuristic and unrepresentative," Mr Donnelly said.

Instead he aimed to show what "90 per cent of teachers experience 90 per cent of the time".

The plays run from 12 January to 19 February and have a shared cast that includes Joanne Froggatt, who recently appeared in TV drama Downton Abbey, and Christopher Simpson, who starred in the film version of Brick Lane.

The Inspiration

And what did you think, Mr Young?

With its west London setting and cocky late-40s male promoter, there are obvious parallels between the free school in Little Platoons and the real West London Free School being set up by Toby Young.

Playwright Steve Waters consulted Mr Young, a journalist who has dominated media coverage of free schools, on the script.

"I was expecting a left-wing commentary about a group of pushy, blundering middle-class fools," said Mr Young. "It is not as unsympathetic as that. It seemed quite funny."

He does argue the play overstates the latitude free schools have over admissions. But Mr Young will have a right of reply through a separate piece he is writing, expected to be performed after Little Platoons on at least three nights.

Asked whether there is a Toby Young-inspired character, Mr Waters points to the "eloquent, funny and charming elitist" Nick Orme.

But Mr Young says he does not recognise himself. He describes Orme as "arrogant, cocksure and hopelessly uninformed about educational policy, with some redeeming qualities - a bit of a twat, but he has the best lines".

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