A collection of articles about or in response to The Inspectors Call, and about education in general…

Schools Week – a profile of Peter Campling

Ann McGauran | Apr 21, 2015

Peter Campling, education consultant, playwright and former head

Former secondary head Peter Campling has been watching the first rehearsal for his latest play. It concerns a vexing series of events leading up to an Ofsted inspection at the fictional Ardley Green School.

There will be swearing, he says – and not just by any teachers in the audience.

But there’ll be laughs as well as a few expletives when The Inspector Calls starts its run later this month (April 28). Chatting to the cast, I’m told the play has a lot of humour.

Schools are funny places, says Campling, who can draw creative inspiration from his years of teaching and leadership roles. He left his headship at Deptford
Green School in south London two years ago, and now works as a freelance coach and consultant.

“Yes, hopefully the play is funny,” he says. “We’ve had a good laugh today. That’s one of the things I do miss about schools – the banter, the laughter and the ridiculous situations that crop up.”

A description of the play reveals the escalating list of challenges facing head George Smith. “Pressure builds from the start of the school year for George, with poor maths results, disgruntled unions and an impending inspection. George’s private life, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and the problems mount with a budget crisis, an interfering local authority, unwanted competition from the new free school, and scandalous behaviour at the staff party.” Then the inspectors call.

Campling says he did not want to write a play that was “a kind of dirge”. While he says it has a political side and a plea in the narrative to take stock of what’s happening, “it’s also capturing the joy and the incredible hard work of people in schools”.

Born in Pershore in Worcestershire, he is the son of a clergyman and teacher. He says he’s “been in and out of beliefs, but I certainly had a strong upbringing in a very liberal version of Christianity”.

He describes getting into the King’s School in Worcester as a cathedral choir boy as “an extraordinary experience”, singing until he was 13, two or three hours a day with “more at weekends” and on tour. “There was probably more discipline than I’ve ever had since. But you got on with it, because that was what you had to do.”

He had to board, “so I was taken away from home at the age of 9. It’s something you probably talk about to your therapist 30 years later, but at the time it’s quite good fun.”

Known during his schooldays as a bit of a rebel, Campling says he was always in trouble. “There was a particular teacher who saw some good in me, I think, and who got me involved in acting. I absolutely loved it pretty much the first time I stepped on the stage.” He was accepted into the National Youth Theatre at 16.

His “scenic route” to becoming a teacher included a gap year in India after he left school, an experience that he says was “mind-blowing and changes your perspective on everything”. He came back to take up a teacher training place, but soon realised that it wasn’t what he wanted to do.

He switched to a degree in development studies at University of East Anglia, “but I still had a love of theatre”.

After finishing university, he headed to Nicaragua “where there was a war going on”. for a year to work for the rebel Sandinistas, picking coffee and cotton and helping to build a hospital. “It was American imperialism at its worst and a cause célèbre for the left at the time.”

While there he was inspired to start writing a play. He finished Hey Nicaragua! on his return, and set up a theatre company with friends from the National Youth Theatre and others. They took the play to the Edinburgh festival, where it got good reviews and hit a “rich seam of interest”.

While having begun his theatre company wanting to act, he ended up wanting to write and direct. He taught English as a foreign language and did “whatever else you need to do to pay the bills, and I kept going to the grand old age of 29″.

At that point he decided to go to Goldsmiths in London to do a PGCE, “because that was a way I could carry on being a writer. Of course I’ve hardly written anything since, and that was 22 years ago.”

But there is a link between the play he did write about asylum seekers after securing his first teaching post in a drama department and the work that’s now in rehearsal.

His first school, Geoffrey Chaucer – now an academy with a different name – was in south London’s Elephant and Castle. “There were a lot of asylum seekers coming in to the school who were not officially recognised. It was certainly a big issue then and some deportation was going on of young people. There are echoes of real life in that story.”

The school was in special measures and had never had a school play that anyone could remember. The keen young drama teacher wrote Kissing Carlos and set about “literally dragging the kids in from the playground” to take part.

“One of these guys was called Gbolahan Obisesan and he got the lead. He was brilliant. I persuaded him to take it more seriously and eventually he got into the National Youth Theatre, and then became a professional actor and writer. He’s written for the National Theatre and the Young Vic. And he is here now in my cast – here this afternoon. It’s a lovely completion of the circle!”

But until now, Kissing Carlos was “pretty much it from a writing point of view”, he says. “I had gone into teaching naively thinking that I could be a teacher and a writer.”

Headship’s a weight, but it’s also a creative opportunity
Since giving up his headship Campling has been working as a freelance in about 10 schools. “So I’m seeing quite an interesting range of approaches.”

What does he miss about being head of his own school? “The sense of being part of a community. I miss the creative side of headship and the fact that you are responsible for everything. While it’s a weight it’s also a creative opportunity.

“I miss that sense of building something long term and sustainable. That’s why something like a play is very satisfying.”

He worries that now “it’s much tougher being in a school that’s currently constrained or threatened”.

What he doesn’t miss at all are the “pressures increased accountability, which I believe have got to a toxic level”.

For heads, he identifies a football management syndrome, whereby “if they have not got the results they are looking for in a short period of time you get rid of them.

“It’s creating a culture of fear that is very damaging and permeates through the system right down to the kids. If your only currency is results you are going to produce a generation that is only good at taking exams. I think we are heading in that direction. You can’t blame heads because their jobs are on the line.”

It’s the Ofsted framework that becomes the driving force of schools, he adds. “So much of it is based on results and that’s what drives you because, ultimately,
your jobs and status are on the line. That’s completely wrong and tragic.”

The Inspectors Call runs from April 28 to May 16 at Theatro Technis, Camden Town, London. To book go to theinspectorscall.co.uk


Which was most challenging – Hey Nicaragua! or getting ready for Ofsted?

Nicaragua got quite hairy at times, but at least it was for a good cause. With the current punitive Ofsted inspections, the stakes are ridiculously high for what is often just a roll of the dice.

Who would be the guest of honour at your dinner party?

Arthur Miller. His plays capture the key issues of our time so poignantly. He also led an extraordinary life and kept to his principles and politics, when many around him did not.

What would be your three “must-have” pieces of music at the dinner party?

Handel’s Gloria (lost for 300 years until recently re-discovered). I’m quite into Elbow at the moment and maybe some Jack Johnson.

Where would you go for an ideal family trip and why?

Newport in Pembrokeshire. The most beautiful place and loads of fun to be had. I’ve been having great holidays there since the 1960s and it never changes.

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give your children, Laurie, 11, and Jo, 14?

Try to stay humble when things go well and when they don’t, try to stay positive.

This article first appeared in Schools Week April 22nd 2015

School is a drama – and the show must go onstage

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.”

This is an extract from an by article Adi Bloom, first published in TES 20 March 2015



Waiting for the inspector’s call – Peter Campling

George Smith loves his job as a headteacher; he cares deeply for his school and the community he serves. However, he’s feeling under more pressure than ever before.

His maths results are down, bringing the school’s headline figure down with them, and an inspection is due. He’s also having to deal with disgruntled unions, a mounting budget crisis, a building in decay, an interfering local authority, unwanted competition from the new free school and fall out from scandalous behaviour at the staff party.

Needless to say his private life is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

Judgement day finally arrives…the inspectors call.

There is nothing new about school leaders being under pressure but the amount of work (averaging 60 hours a week – the most in Europe) and responsibility has increased significantly in recent years, as has the consequence of a drop in results or a weaker Ofsted judgement. Not long ago, a level 3 was deemed ‘satisfactory’; it then became ‘requires improvement’. Now, to paraphrase Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in February, it appears to be, ‘not good enough, your school will become an academy – and you’re fired’. ‘Ofsted with your head’, as it were. This is all the more threatening at a time when the credibility of results and performance tables is highly questionable and Ofsted judgements have been criticised as unreliable, as reports in the TES have highlighted.

There can be little doubt that school leaders are currently under unprecedented levels of pressure, most of which stems from public exam results and inspections. This is having an impact on their personal lives, their professional work and their schools. With all the pressure to ‘raise standards’, it takes a brave leader to ignore the latest strategies for improving results. But how far are we prepared to go with this? If our default position becomes, ‘It’s in the best interests of the child to get the best results they can, regardless . . .’ the implications are worrying. We would be in danger of producing a generation who are good at passing exams, but not much else. Likewise, in many schools the pressure and fear of the next inspection induces endless amounts of preparation, meetings, the production of documents and data and the constant second-guessing of the inspectors and their interpretation of the framework. ASCL General Secretary Brian Lightman (Leader, December 2014) highlighted the problem, noting that school leaders are spending a significant amount of time on compliance with what they think that Ofsted wants, which is time that would be better spent on what their schools actually need.

Of course, there is a great deal of excellent work being carried out by highly skilled school leaders across the country, and many are able to successfully balance the focus on results, inspections and school improvement. But for many others, who have to operate in the context of growing pressure and the fear that accompanies it, their work is being compromised. More young people become anxious. Teachers perform less well, with less personality and creativity. Leadership increasingly focuses on the short-term, rather than on long-term sustainable improvement.

The sum of all this is that more and more good people are deciding not to work in schools with the number leaving the profession at a ten-year high, according to Department for Education (DfE) figures. Or it is decided for them. Last year Ofsted judged that a third of secondary schools were ‘inadequate’ or ‘require improvement’. Since then performance tables show that the number of secondary schools below the required threshold has doubled.

Increasing numbers of school leaders are leaving their positions ‘early’ and the vacancies are becoming harder to fill. We used to joke about ‘football management syndrome’, but school leadership is starting to make football management look like a secure career option. It’s easy to joke about it, but actually the situation is a disgrace. In what other profession do the leaders have to tolerate such levels of insecurity and the politicisation of their positions? Would the Prime Minister publicly threaten to sack a third of senior doctors or police officers?

At a strategic level, ASCL is promoting policies that will help to alleviate the pressure and the impact it is having. Most significantly, there is the blueprint for a school-led self-improving system, which calls for more collaboration, a reduced role for government and a less judgemental, more developmental approach to inspections and to school improvement. Underpinning this is the need for more trust in schools and between schools, as highlighted by Peter Kent’s presidential theme this year ‘Trust to transform’.

I took a break from headship two years ago and since then have had a number of interesting jobs as an interim school leader and for the Co-operative College, Oxfam Education and Teaching Leaders. I’ve enjoyed the variety of work and I’ve learnt a great deal from the various roles. It is always inspiring to visit other schools and to see the wonderful things that are going on, despite the intense pressures that many are working under.

Which brings me back to my opening scenario and The Inspectors Call – a play I have written that explores the impact of all this pressure and the growing corporate culture in education through the eyes of a beleaguered headteacher called George Smith. It is an attempt to capture for a wider audience the joys, the pain, the hilarity, the rewards and the deep frustrations of those in the privileged position of school leadership.

Hope to see you there, if you can spare the time…

This is an extract from an article published in Leader the magazine of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) – March 2015


The Inspectors Call – from page to stage

Finishing a play is great, wonderful – not just because you’ve managed to complete something creative, but because it signals the start of a new equally challenging and exciting journey. Getting it on.

First task is to find, or create, a theatre company to do this. I chose the latter because I hope this may be the start (or actually in my case the re-start) of a productive period of writing. So No-Notice Productions is a new theatre company, taking its name from one of the accountability measures currently in vogue in the public sector – no-notice inspections. Plus officially register as a company, a trip to the bank to set up an account and we’re up and running. Job done.

Starting a new theatre company is actually not at all straight forward, especially when you’ve spent the last twenty years working in schools and your knowledge of and contacts within the theatre world, are a little rusty. I needed to find an experienced director who was well connected and fully up to speed with the current theatre scene and Gary Merry fits the bill perfectly. From the business angle, I also needed someone with experience in financial matters, marketing and fund-raising as well as technical issues and I am very fortunate to have procured the services of my cousin Anthony Campling, who has a wealth of experience in these areas, as our Production Manager.

Finding a venue was relatively straight forward, in as far as there are only a few London theatres which are interested in staging unsolicited new work. I approached all of them and had many encouraging responses, but of those able to accommodate the show, Theatro Technis was my clear favourite. Theatro Technis has a proud history of staging contemporary political theatre and has had a good deal of success in attracting audiences and some notable transfers to larger theatres. The space itself is also perfect for ‘The Inspectors Call’.

The next task was to find a cast and after about six months of conversations, emails, readings and meetings, we now have a group of ten talented actors signed up. Gary and I have felt a real enthusiasm amongst the acting fraternity to be involved in this production. Those who have attended various ‘read throughs’ have been extremely positive about the play. It seems that everyone has their own vivid experiences of and strong feelings about the educational issues it covers. We started out thinking ‘who can we get’? – but by the end we had to choose between very strong options and we are delighted with the final selection.

Two nice stories about me and the cast, which prove, if there was ever any doubt, that life is basically just a series of circles… In 1987 I set up a theatre company ‘AK:47 Theatre ~Cooperative’ (yes, I was an angry young man, out to save the world) to perform my new play ‘Hey Nicaragua!’. The show was a success and toured on and off for three years, along with two other plays I wrote ‘Doing Bush’ and ‘The CIA Cabaret’ (yes, I was a very angry young man) and there was an ever-present young actress in the company called Penelope Dimond.. Twenty eight years on, Penny is still treading the boards (and is still young) and I am really thrilled that she is now going to play the part of Bryony in my new play ‘The Inspectors Call’.

When I became a little less angry, I stopped writing and directing to become a Drama teacher in a south London secondary school. The school had no tradition of theatre whatsoever and in my first year, I literally had to drag the students in from their lunch break to come and rehearse the new play I had written about asylum seekers, ‘Kissing Carlos’. One of these students was a talented young man who performed the lead role of Carlos brilliantly both at school and later at the Edinburgh Festival. Gbolahan Obisesan. went on to join the National Youth Theatre and become a professional actor, writer and director. Twenty years later, he is going to play the part of Winston in ‘The Inspectors Call’. Fantastic! – and hopefully this time I won’t need to drag him in from the playground to attend rehearsals…

Peter Campling – 17/03/2015