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Review: The School Play, Southwark Playhouse: Education becomes an exercise in simply ticking the boxes

Beginning with a lone “f**k”, this sets the tone for the rest of the play, where an insight into one hectic day – which is an everyday affair for teachers – culminates into a series of events of failure from the morning until the end of the school bell.  

Alex MacKeith’s debut play epitomises failing schools, 65-plus-hour working weeks, academisation, exams, a lack of money and shifting blame with a painfully realistic 90 minute long thought provoking and insightful take on a struggling south London primary school. But what makes it so relatable is that this is not a problem confined only to the capital, it is country wide. And MacKeith’s reliable voices comes from his experience of working in a school after university.

The small theatre of Southwark playhouse becomes a corner of the head teacher’s office, with drab walls and white boards covered with plans, rotas and schedules.

Inside head teacher Jo (Ann Ogbomo)’s office, we learn the monotonous demands staff face daily, including permission slips and trip fees for the Year Six trip to the Natural History Museum, difficult parents, council visits and personal problems – in Jo’s case the beginnings of a divorce – which are shown through the almost robotic exchanged between head teacher and her sweet and earnest wanna-be teacher Lara (Fola Evans-Akinbola), currently working as a secretary in her former school with the hope of applying for a PGCE.

But this day is more important than usual. This is Sats results day. And it’s not just about how the kids do. That’s not really what testing children at age 10 is all about. It’s about getting 80 per cent of pupils above the national average to qualify for pupil premium funding awards. Or rather, the vouchers they’d get if the qualify to be entered, as poorer schools are deemed not responsible enough to spend their own money.

Jo’s second problem is Tom (Oliver Dench) who is paid by an agency to tutor children. But following the exam results, he naively claims he wasn’t aware of his responsibility to ready them for their Sats. He instead tried to make the kids like him, telling them Sats “don’t matter”, to Jo’s anger which leads to crux of the play – a blazing argument between the two, where Jo is the mouth piece for MacKeith’s anger of the system.

She starkly points out the lack of improvement with a serious of numbers and test results over the terms he’s been there – the only way the head teacher can see things after being conditioned by the system, and belittles Tom’s fanciful approach to teaching – using Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” lyrics (“We don’t need no education”) to correct grammar. It’s here where class becomes an issue, as Tom’s private schooling and Oxford education becomes redundant as he doesn’t understand what these children really need – the basics. 

Jo knows every child by name and their needs, strengths and weaknesses – proving teachers are there because they care, but the many many hoops they must jump through are beginning to take their toll. And now, education is about “ticking the boxes” as Jo is reluctant to finally admit.

The small production – which only has two other actors with minor parts – is empowering, moving and poignant. Schools cannot carry on without more money and help, and the real ones to suffer are the children. As diabetic pupil Hannah did when she went on the school trip and had a hypo. Her parental agreement form had been missed during the rush to get her on the trip, leading to her father blaming the school and threatening to sue. A damning situation in more ways than one.

School Play is on at Southwark Playhouse until 25 February

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