School is a drama - and the show must go onstage

20th March 2015 at 00:00
Former head takes education's `high and lows' to London theatre

"Welcome to Ardley Green Community School," the headteacher says. "We consider ourselves to be a good school. You'll be making your own minds up on that."

So begins The Inspectors Call, a new play being performed at a North London theatre in April and May. The play has been written by Peter Campling, a former drama teacher and, for seven years, head of a South London comprehensive.

"It isn't autobiographical in any sense," Mr Campling says. "Other than that I have experiences of the highs and lows of school leadership, as does the guy in the play."

The play follows the fortunes of headteacher George Smith and the Ardley Green staff, as they deal with falling results and the arrival of school inspectors.

It has a large cast for a small production, with characters including three deputy heads, several classroom teachers, a union rep, a director of children's services, an education journalist and a school-furniture saleswoman.

"They are absolutely not people I've worked with," Mr Campling says of these characters. "I've made a real effort not to base them on real people. It wouldn't be fair, obviously, but it would also be lazy.

"But, having said that, there are some scenes between the headteacher and a student, or between the headteacher and staff, that are situations every head has sat through, including myself." He pauses. "Yeah, there are situations that happened to me."

In addition, he says, the character of the wine-quaffing education journalist might be inspired by stories heard during the course of his real-life friendship with TES columnist Geoff Barton. "I'd better not go further than that," Mr Campling says. "The bottle of wine and, yeah - there's bits and pieces of truth in there."

Before training as a teacher, Mr Campling wrote a number of political plays. The first was about Nicaragua, where he had spent a year. The second was about George Bush and the first Gulf War. The third was called CIA Cabaret. "It was agitprop," Mr Campling says.

While the current play is in the same mode, Mr Campling tried not to make it too polemical. "But there's constant pressure on schools to raise standards in certain ways, which is having quite a large impact across the school community," he says.

"By doing a play about it, I'm hopefully opening it up to a broader group. Possibly even teachers themselves, who haven't experienced life inside the head's office, will come away with a slightly different view of what heads experience."

However, he hopes that the play will appeal equally to those whose day jobs do not involve worrying about Ofsted inspections. "The thing with teaching is that it's a bit like the England football team," he says. "Everyone's interested in it. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone's an expert. Everyone thinks they could pick the best 11; everyone thinks they could run a school. There's a very broad appeal, which we hope we can tap into."

He's not the only one to feel that way. Another school-based play is also being staged in London this spring. A Level Playing Field (see what he did there?) tells the story of a group of sixth-form pupils at a fee-paying school, sitting in an isolation room because of a clash in the exam timetable.

When their supervising teacher fails to turn up, discussion of the role of education is left to those it affects most: the students. Playwright Jonathan Lewis has based the script on the private-school experiences of his own son.

The Inspectors Call will be playing at Theatro Technis in Camden, London, from 28 April to 16 May ( A Level Playing Field will be at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, from 14 April to 9 May (


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