‘Outstanding’ piece of theatre exploring the relationship between schools and Ofsted

I have a tremendous amount of respect for teachers. Whenever I hear someone express anything remotely along the lines of ‘teachers shouldn’t get all those holidays’ or ‘I work as hard as any teacher and I don’t get all that time off’ it’s all I can do not to launch myself at them. My mum has very recently retired from 40 odd years in teaching. Growing up I watched her pour herself into it.

So as the lights went down on Peter Campling’s newly written play, The Inspectors Call. I knew it couldn’t be long before I was furiously sympathising with all it had to say about teaching today. Yet this play wasn’t really about teaching. It was about the governing and management of a school.

Head teacher, George, has headed up Ardley Green, a state secondary school in a challenging area, for 12 years. It’s the beginning of a new year. Despite the ‘long’ summer holiday, George hasn’t had much time off. He’s been planning this year ever since the last one ended. He is immediately concerned with the prospect of an inspection from Ofsted which could come at any time. So he goes through the motions of the yearly start up meetings, plotting out his weekly calendar and welcoming the fresh load of newly qualified teachers, but the threat of Ofsted forever looms. George is directly accountable for the school’s yearly performance. Inspection is a big deal for him and, as the year plays out, this has disastrous personal consequences.

The play suggests that head teachers are stuck between a rock and hard place. His teaching staff work bloody hard. After loses of colleagues the previous year, they are scared for their jobs. The newbies are eager but woefully inexperienced on a practical level. The leadership team work awkwardly together; knowing they all harbour very different attitudes to teaching. The governors seem supportive but are chaotic and the input from the Local Education Authority is inconsistent and threatening. The school sits in an incredibly challenging area with parents and children alike bursting in at the drop of a hat, being physically and verbally abusive. On top of it all George desperately needs to draw up a new marketing plan.

Campling’s writing is excellent. The direction is slick. The acting and characterisation from the entire company is faultless. It’s all very witty and dangerously sharp. For my part there were tears but also anger. The play obviously plays up to caricature. It’s like a serious version of the BBC’s 2012 or W1A. I work in an organisation similar to those portrayed in those shows and I know that the caricature is pretty much just actual truth. So as Campling is an ex-teacher this only makes the play all the more angering and worrying.

What it demonstrates so well is how differing political outlooks sparring on the correct approach to schooling end up ultimately tearing everything apart. None of them are necessarily wrong in theory. But theory is incredibly different to practice and Campling’s core message is exactly that. He agrees that schools must be subjected to scrutiny, but context is the key to everything. The outcome of George’s downfall is the school ‘going academy.’ I am no expert on academies. From a little research though, my instinct is that ultimately it will just perpetuate the cycle, just with different people in the same roles. Some schools will thrive, some will struggle tremendously and some will just tread water. In 5 years’ time academies will probably be scrapped or reconceived entirely anyway – let’s be honest.

Whatever happens it will still be at the expense of those individuals stuck between a rock and a hard place; who are there because they care. Surely one doesn’t get into working at the front line of the education system, and more importantly stay in it, these days unless they care? So let’s scrutinise them, yes of course, they’re teaching our children! But let’s ALL support and listen to them too! Change is always going to come and it should, but can’t it be partially from people who actually know what they’re talking about?
If you care about education in this country in any way you must see this play. You probably will. I doubt it will stay on the fringe for long, especially in this extraordinarily charged post-election climate! Either way it gets ‘Outstanding’ from me.

Jenny Bull – Everything-Theatre – 19th May 2015

 



 

‘A Vital Comment on What Makes a School Good’

“Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you, education, education and education,” declared Tony Blair back in 1996. Seems almost quaint now. Since then, education has become a political hot potato and schools a battleground of tests, league tables and reports. It’s against this background that former headteacher Peter Campling’s The Inspectors Call ( in this case the dreaded inspectors being from OFSTED ) is set, a vital comment on what makes a school good and whether our current system really is best for our children.

Taking place in a struggling urban secondary, Ardley Green, with the action centring around the devoted and charismatic headteacher George Smith ( Joe Cushley ) and his office, the play charts his and the staff’s plucky efforts to ensure the school is ‘good’ whilst maintaining the all-important data, pacifying Bryony ( Penelope Diamond ) the local authority Director of Children’s Services, and keeping the kids happy – all under the spectre of the imminent OFSTED inspection.

But despite everyone claiming to do ‘what’s best for the children’ the cracks are showing. Deputy Head – Achievement Winston ( Gbolahan Obisesan ) is obsessed with data snap-shots and of the opinion that results trump everything, whereas Deputy Head – Teaching, Amanda ( Michele Monks ) is all about emotion and the development of character. At first George’s innate wisdom, instinct and ability to make everyone ‘stay positive’ keeps these two opposing views in check, but as the play progresses and he has to deal with poorly performing teachers, an irate union rep and a harassed parent governor, not to mention his own diabetes and estranged wife, the cracks become a chasm.

Malcolm ( Anthony Best ) the school’s Business Manager provides hilarious light-relief with his pre-occupation with fire drills and non-working blinds. And the scenes between George and Eve ( Hilary Derrett) his PA are beautifully observed, capturing the everyday familiarity and respect of long-standing colleagues.

The play’s pace never falters and the audience feels very much part of the action, particularly when the fourth wall is broken and we’re addressed as either the children in assembly, the parents or members of the OFSTED inspection team. Further, the scene changes are smoothed with real radio announcements about various education policies and reforms, bringing home the fact that events depicted in the play are really happening, right now.

When the feared OFSTED inspector Chris Rogers ( Amanda Maud ) finally arrives in Act two George’s worst fears are realised, and we’re left with a very sour, and quite upsetting , taste that power and playing the game wins over being decent and loyal.

Cleverly directed by Gary Merry and every part superbly cast ( with some of the actors convincingly playing more than one role ) it’s no surprise that The Inspectors Call has been nominated for an Off West End Theatre Award ( OFFIE ) for Best New Play. But perhaps the most compelling thing about the piece is its ability to show the human side of a school, highlighting that nothing, not even data snap-shots, are black and white. Having an entrenched, inflexible view isn’t any good for children and certainly not what education, education, education is all about.

Loma-Ann Marks – Culture Compass – 12th May 2015

 



 

‘A Comic And Moving Tragedy’

There is a moment during the first half of this new play by ex-teacher and writer Peter Campling when this politically charged drama set in a school grabs hold and never lets go. George Smith, played by a Falstaff-like Joe Cushley, is headmaster of an inner-London comprehensive who spends each frantic school day waiting for the Ofsted inspectors to call. In the interim, he has to deal with everything from interfering director of children’s services Bryony (Penelope Dimon), irate parents, squeezed budgets and a disintegrating home life.

Smith’s motto is “stay positive” but it rings increasingly hollow as the pressures and crises build up under the new regime of He Who Must Not Be Named — clearly a reference to Michael Gove and his academy and free schools “revolution.” In a moving scene, Smith has to be the one who wields the axe against long-serving teacher Fiona, played by a hugely sympathetic Amanda Maud. Inevitably, union rep Phil — the wonderfully versatile Anthony Best — calls a strike.

The most chilling moment in the piece is between Smith and the ambitious, data-obsessed deputy head Winston — the brilliant Gbolahan Obisesan — who has no time for the liberal, inclusive values of his fellow senior teacher. He dismisses them as an excuse for letting the mostly working-class and immigrant pupils fail to excel and consigning them to a dead-end future.

The two are polar opposites of teaching philosophy — Govian versus progressive — and they are also both in love with the same young and beautiful teacher, Lara (Blaise Alert Duggan). When a tryst is discovered at the Christmas party, Winston’s Brutus-like ambitions to replace Smith are laid bare.

Inevitably, the dreaded call comes in the second half. Maud assumes the role of the officious, icy Ofsted inspector as Smith and his team scramble to present the best possible face of the school. We want them to succeed but in this inquisition-like trial by fire, the stakes appear stacked against Smith and his co-operative values, upheld by deputy heads Jim and Amanda (the equally excellent Sean Patterson and Michele Monks). As matters progress, the human cost of relentless competition, testing and inspection in the name of ever-rising standards becomes ever more evident.

Under the muscular direction of Gary Merry for No-Notice Productions, The Inspectors Call is both comic and a moving tragedy which continuoulsy offers up pithy insights.

As Smith replies sagely to the demand by Bryony that the school achieve “outstanding” status: “None of them would be if they all were.” Quite. 4/5

Joe Gill – The Morning Star – 9th May 2015

 



 

‘Passionately Political – Highly Recommended’

The Inspectors Call artfully portrays a school heading towards crisis. Its head, George Smith, is passionate about making his pupils’ lives better – but the truth is that he and his urban comprehensive have seen better days. George has taken up yoga, but he needs more than that to help him handle a ghastly build-up of “challenges”. He has sacked his homophobic, creationist science teacher, who then threatened the school with the “wrath of God” at the last appeal.

A year 7 mum wants to discuss the transition curriculum and he keeps being told his maths results need to improve. His list of concerns continues to grow as the academy chains circle and a new free school opens down the road. His personal life is looking pretty shaky too – his wife is off with her new man. Ominously, he thinks he has the support of the governors. Can things get any worse?

Hell, yes. The call from the inspectors that George spends every day anticipating and ruminating about finally comes. The inspectors are on the way…

Written by former headteacher and ASCL council member Peter Campling, it is a funny and entertaining production that has just received a nomination for Best New Play in the Offies, the Off West End theatre awards. But it is also unflinching as it draws us into the concerns of the head and his staff. They are – albeit with a range of motivations – doing their best as a community for pupils in a down-at-heel setting. We’re given a clear sense of the real difficulties this school faces.

The writer’s long career as a teacher and a school leader has left him well placed to convey how easy it is for national politics and shifting policies to mess life up for schools. But he and the talented theatre company, No-Notice Productions, successfully present the passion and the small glories that light up schools across the country every day. The play addresses some fundamental questions, including what is education really for? Have schools, as George says, turned into exam factories with high staff burnout? Is one student’s poor attendance and predicted three GCSEs a failure of the school – or an achievement? Is her beautiful singing – “she’d not sung a note before she came to this school” George says – worth anything to the inspectors?

The actors work beautifully as an ensemble. Joe Cushley as George is brilliant at showing a battered, sometimes cynical but always committed head who really cares about all his pupils. Penelope Diamond is excellent as the director of children’s services. Gbolahan Obisesan stands out as Winston. Gary Merry’s direction is first rate too.

On this stage the stories are truly personal. Each character is brought vividly to life and every word has the ring of truth. The message is passionately political. Highly recommended.

Ann McGauran – Schools Week – 8th May 2015



 

‘A Must See Show’

Whether it stirs memories from your school days, highlights your concerns as a parent or re-awakens your more nightmarish days working in a school, there isn’t one person who won’t be able to identify with The Inspectors Call in some manner.

Peter Campling’s play looks at how the phrase ‘what’s best for kids’ is thrown around by the government and throughout the faculty and who really is looking out for the students and who is just looking to tick the boxes. The entire play circles around the head teacher, George Smith, who is struggling to bring a challenging school from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’ in its Ofsted report. Determined to always be ‘positive’, Mr Smith puts his heart and soul in providing the best life skills, a good education and a happy staff team.

The play is run by an extremely strong cast. The relationships among the various staff members are made very clear. It is an interesting angle to view a school;  part of us will always believe that teachers live in the school and only live to teach. The cast expertly remind audiences that there is more to teaching than meets the eye and shows just how challenging and stressful the job can be.

The whole auditorium becomes the school as the cast turn the audience into a group of Year Nine children, or the faculty attending their staff briefing and even turning them into the scary Ofsted team prepping for their inspection.

It only seems appropriate that a show based in a secondary school is up-to-date with all the relevant pop culture. A summer play – where all the staff are re-imagined as Harry Pottercharacters, helps see the play through; fans can understand that ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ is clearly a villain in the team’s eyes or that ‘Dumbledore’ represents the much loved head teacher. If you are unfamiliar with the different roles in the education world, Harry Potter will definitely clear things up for you.

As well as the writer being an experienced teacher, it is obvious that a lot of careful research and thought has gone into this script. The government’s interventions are touched upon with radio snippets throughout the play and show how intrusive the government has become in education. It seems like a perfect time to put this play to audiences as with the election looming ever closer it provides the opportunity for the audience to consider how they want the education system to work. As the writer says, it is “vibrant, contemporary political theatre” and its entertainment and thought-provoking elements make it a must-see show.

Tal Fox – A Younger Theatre – 30th April 2015

 



 

‘Amusing Topical & Relevant Theatre’

This is not J B Priestley’s famous play but a new play by Peter Campling and the Inspectors in question are those from OFSTED . We are in Ardley Green Community School a struggling urban comprehensive. The first half of the play depicts in colourful and amusing style the interactions of the headmaster, his senior team and a host of other characters which must loom large in the life of any large school. Overhanging them in their valiant attempts to satisfy modern accountability requirements and live up to their own ideological beliefs is the ever present threat of an OFSTED inspection . In the second half of the play their worst fears are realised as the inspectors descend.

The author Peter Campling clearly knows what he is writing about, having taught for over 20 years as well as having been the head of a London comprehensive. The play was convincing, fast moving and both funny and moving. It was set primarily in the headteacher’s study suggested simply by a desk , table and a couple of cupboards. The cavernous utilitarian playing space of Theatro Technis well evoked the atmosphere of a rundown institution. From time to time various characters would address the audience directly either as members of staff or as part of the inspection team drawing us into the action. Gaps between the frequent scenes were covered with topical newscasts. The excellent programme notes provided very valuable background information for those not familiar with recent educational practice.

The casting by No Notice Productions under its director Gary Merry was perfect. The universally strong cast played a whole range of colourful characters: slightly overdrawn in some cases but never falling into farcical stereotypes. The key role of the headmaster was well played by Joe Cushley . His large bearded presence seemed to exactly match the portrayal of the character as a likeable devoted teacher increasingly overwhelmed by the task he faced as he tried to deal with the competing demands of staff, parents , governors, the education authority and some personal demons of his own . I can only imagine that this was a portrayal which would ring very true to those who actually have to fill these roles in our educational establishments.

His senior team were a delightful set of contrasts: Winston ( Gbolahan Obisesan ) was the analytical results based deputy head achievement, whereas Amanda ( Michelle Monks) as head of teaching was emotive and gushing. Malcolm (Anthony Best) was a besuited and anally retentive school business manager , hilarious with his continual obsession with fire drills and non-operative blinds whereas Jim the deputy head behaviour and enrichment ( Sean Patterson) was every bit the casual experienced teacher. A number of the cast members doubled roles very effectively. I particularly admired Hillary Derrett who alternated between the efficient smartly dressed school secretary, and the somewhat dipsy mother who for some inexplicable reason had become Chair of Governors.

If I have one quibble it would be that the lead of the Inspectors team played by Amanda Maud was rather one-dimensional and unsympathetic . One imagines, or at least hopes, that there would be almost as much angst in an inspection team about delivering bad news as there would be in receiving it.
Overall this was an excellent evening of theatre which aired some important contemporary issues about our educational system. It deserves to be widely seen by those both in and outside that system.

Paul Akroyd – Remote Goat – 2nd May 2015

 



 

‘This is a powerful piece of drama’

“And schools are back in the news this week!” So begins the radio news report which punctuates each scene in the new play by Peter Campling, “The Inspectors Call,” running currently at the Theatro Tecnis, London. The demise of BSF funding; the rise of academies; the English GCSE debacle and the changes in teachers’ pensions are all logged as scene setters for the life and times of George Smith, Headteacher at Ardley Green Community School.

George, feelingly played by Joe Cushley, finds that his beloved school, full of a rich range of heartwarming characters, is beginning to suffer from teacher action, government intervention and a lack of trust from the local authority. His personal life is a mess; he has diabetes which he does not control effectively and his professional demise is hastened by a well-intentioned, but naive Chair of Governors, fuelled in a cruel betrayal of loyalty by an ambitious, data-gathering deputy, called Winston. “Winnie,” played menacingly by Gbolahan Obisesan, is a triumph. Under-stated until the second act, the character produces the most chilling turnaround of events at the end of the play – no spoilers. His scene under the spotlight when he betrays his Head to the Chair of Governors was reminiscent of Eddie Carbone’s call to the immigration authorities in Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” The distaste and disapproval of the audience for his action, was palpable and particularly resonant when I identified many of the current great and good in the largely educational audience.

Whilst playwright, Campling insists his characters are not from real life, he admits that there are elements of his experience as a Headteacher. George’s inability to encompass and protect the school during considerable governmental intervention; interruptions from staff, students, abusive parents, governors, officials and ultimately, of course the inspectors of the title, is heart-rending and ends in the supreme tragedy. A very personal mentoring between Amanda (Michele Monks) another senior leader and trainee teacher, Emily (Katie Turner) rings true as well from personal experience; there is always a place in schools for the seasoned, supportive professional.

The cast is large for a small production, so some actors are asked to double up, or even triple up roles. This actually adds to the enjoyment of the play, as one marvels for example, at Hilary Derrett, playing Betty the Chair of Governors and then with a tweak of the hair and dress, becomes Eve, the warm-hearted and efficient PA to George. Similarly, Blaise Alert Duggan and Sean Patterson play blinders in both their respective roles.

There was no weak link in the acting and the set, whilst basic, transformed to match the mood of each scene; the passing seasons in schools were well evoked with, for example, the arrival of a lit Christmas tree and a wrapped bottle, tagged from the school’s furniture supplier.

Gary Merry directs tightly and there were few surplus moments, although to a seasoned teaching audience, it could be that some roles are a little stereotypical; the difficult girl who has a hidden talent, or the ‘salt of the earth’ teacher who runs cookery clubs in her own time, but can’t produce the examination results. The thing is though, these cliches are true; all schools do have such characters. The audience too, were used powerfully, becoming at points, the staff of the school, being addressed by George or the Chief Inspector, the children in an assembly, or the inspectors themselves, gathered to make a judgement. By the time “difficult” Tina sings Handel’s “Gloria” at the end, it was clear that the audience had suspended disbelief and cared for this school.

Campling has effectively captured schooling and inspection during the Gove years and his message is clear; whilst thrusting Winston has a fair point about academic achievement not being just for the middle class, it is George who is given the endorsement of the audience with his impassioned plea that we remember education is so much more than the politicians’ view of “standards” and the cost of measuring everything that happens in schools is extraordinarily high on the real adults and real children who attend them.

Di Beddow
Former Senior Leader & Education Consultant/Writer – Local Schools Network