Education, education, education; many believe it’s the foundation of your life, the greatest time you’ll ever have and a key determinate of the subsequent opportunities offered to you. Selective, free, academy, public, grammar, comprehensive, religious, state – there are many different types of school to choose from but for parents, teachers, pupils and policy-makers navigating the various pros and pitfalls is a minefield. What is the best education system for our nation and who should parents make choices for – the benefit of wider society or just focus on their individual child?
Future Conditional, Tamsin Oglesby’s new play at the Old Vic attempts to discuss some of these issues by looking at education from the perspectives of three different groups of people; the first is a group of largely middle-class mums at the school gate trying to get their child into the best school for next term – it’s a discussion that takes them from a social campaign to support the local school and help increase its academic performance, to catchment area moves to get into the best school, to applying for local fee-paying alternatives. A second story is that of a hardworking teacher managing the banter of his teenage pupils offering them some form of education with a social conscience, while the final group is a think tank tasked with developing a new manifesto for schools.
It’s a nice idea but somehow this play just doesn’t quite work. Each of these perspectives is potentially interesting and well performed but as a whole it’s just not quite coming together enough – it has lots of points to make but no clear overall argument or solution. Part of the problem is the dialogue doesn’t always feel natural, there’s too much of a polemic in the debates that occasionally irritates rather than informs, with characters all to obviously acting as the mouthpiece of the author rather than properly developed and rounded people. Another problem is the absence of children from any of the scenes, even though cast members and ensemble sit in school uniform around the edge of the stage, the writer hasn’t included any dialogue for them, so often actors playing parents and teachers are talking to thin air and having extras dressed as children onstage is a completely redundant design decision. Annoyingly instead they use that 70s sitcom one-sided phone call technique of repeating back what the other person said before they answer – it’s lazy writing and surely comedy has moved on a bit since then.
Two of the stories are drawn together by the experience of a young Asian student Alia (Nikki Patel) who we first see applying to an Oxbridge College where the two interviewees debate her suitability in terms of fulfilling their quota rather than her intellect. She also appears in individual scenes alongside Rob Brydon’s put-upon teacher, when she gets into trouble for hitting another pupil, and is the ‘student-view’ in the think-tank. For some reason Oglesby couldn’t come up with a way to include her among the mums which actually makes no sense if Alia is the meant to be the common factor, or child’s-view here. Having her exist and no other children is also quite a strange choice, unless Ogelsby is trying to make a point about the anonymity of individuals in our education system, in which case this is far from clear.
As I say the performances are all extremely good; Rob Brydon makes good use of his comedy and pathos skills, and despite almost never having anyone to act with delivers a touching performance as the teacher doing his best and worried that he’s letting his pupils down. Lucy Briggs-Owen has become one of London’s most reliable stage performers and follows up on her excellent role here in Fortune’s Fool and the more recent Ayckbourne revival, Communicating Doors at the Menier, with a nicely pitched performance as a middle-class mother willing to pay for the best school even at the expense of her friend’s principles. She’s given good support from the other mums including Natalie Klamar as campaigning mum Suzy who refuses to play the game, jeopardising her child’s future.
Across at the think-tank more clichéd debates are had about the way opportunities are created for students which leads to plenty of Oxbridge bashing and a proposal that the esteemed universities take 3 pupils from every school regardless of attainment which, if there is one, is probably the key message of this piece. Again nice performances particularly from Joshua McGuire as Oliver and Brian Vernel as Bill who have a particularly juicy stand-off on this issue that results in a food fight – whenever you lose your way as a writer always include a food fight to distract the audience. The trouble with this think tank is that like the play it is a talking shop, at the end of which everyone acknowledges that tearing our education system down and starting again isn’t an option. Perhaps our entire education debate hinges on one catch-22 problem – do you change everything, even the stuff that’s good, to make it fairer, or do you find some way to raise the standard of everything else so it reaches the good stuff?
Although Future Conditional is a noble attempt to debate the perceived failings in our education system, its too simplistic approach fails to either satisfyingly bring together its multi-narrative approach or take a particularly clear view on what to do about it. All the stories are enjoyable but don’t fully engage with the complexities of the system we have and the bias of everyone’s perspective. Schooling is something we’ve all gone through and whether our experience of it was positive or negative will influence how we feel about certain types of schools. As no one is able to experience all types of education first-hand it becomes impossible to fully comprehend how effective this comprehensive is or how rigorous that grammar school may be. What is true is that there is no one winning combination for churning out perfect members of society –many decent people leave a comprehensive as they do a public school, and many terrible ones do too, so while our whole education systems focuses on the many rather than the individual these debates will rumble on. As for Future Conditional it’s a pleasant enough evening and funny at times, but in terms of what to do about our schools, it doesn’t solve anything.
Future Conditional is at the Old Vic until 3 October. Tickets start at £10.