Good education is akin to good parents, in that you appreciate them a lot more with age. Perhaps it’s pure nostalgia: having to make your own dinner, like having to explain a simple procedure at the office for the umpteenth time, might make you swoon for the days when you were the recipient of another’s care and guidance (and appreciate how difficult it is to deliver good care and guidance). Or perhaps it’s the wisdom of experience itself: interacting with people who feel that their education didn’t properly prepare them for their life or career makes even the non-religious among us air-cross ourselves.
Humbled by the scarier possibility of not having access to education at all, it might be tempting to resort to unquestioning gratefulness for any education system – particularly one which is home to renowned universities like Oxford and Cambridge. And yet, those well exposed to the UK’s education system are not afraid to laugh about its contradictions. Future Conditional, a play performed in London’s Old Vic Theatre in autumn of 2015, unabashedly exposes some of the often contentious issues surrounding the UK’s system (and, by transmission, the contradictions of many other developed education systems across the world).
Spanning just over two hours, the play alternates scenes between three groups of actors – all of whom do their roles incredible justice. The first, a group of mothers whose children attend the same local primary school, each mother vividly aware that competition for top secondary schools is fierce. The second, six ambitious policy analysts with seemingly little experience in policy, tasked with reforming the education sector. The third, a professor determined to teach a classroom of rowdy middle school children, among them our intellectually curious protagonist, Alia. The dialogue in Tamsin Oglesby’s play is progressively witty, each conversation shining a light on the dusty spider webs delicately hanging across the many mazes of British academia, as each of our three groups struggle to recognize and rectify their respective challenges.
For the group of mothers, the majority of the play is spent audibly engaging in chitchat (or pleasantries, since we’re in the land of the Queen), while quietly working out the code to unlock Success (indeed, success appears a well-defined path with a capital S) for their children. One particularly paranoid mother rants at length about the importance of sending her child to a top public school (to those not familiar with the UK system, public schools are in fact the selective, costly, private ones). Needlessly defending what she believes is the best for her son to a fellow school mum, she spurts “I guess I turned out okay, but was it because of the crappy school I went to, or despite of it?”, making it very clear that she believes the latter.
Her monologue evolves into a debate when wonderfully idealistic mum, Suzy, who has thus far spent a lot of effort trying to coax all the other mothers to send their children to the local school for secondary, asks in return: “What about being a good parent means that you wouldn’t want the best for your kids?” Suzy laments her friend’s strategy of trying to get her son into top social ranks before he hits an age where he understands “what classism even is, inheriting” – she warns – “a superiority bias which he will never recognize he has. Instead, he will grow up to read The Guardian and lament the sadness of the income inequality which, in fact, he helped create!”
Meanwhile, the policy analysts, proudly carrying the aura of former consultants, begin tackling the education reform challenge with none other than market research. “How do other countries do it?” One asks, surprised at how low the UK has fallen on the math and verbal ranks against the Nordics and Korea. Unable to come to a clear answer after significant deliberation across the group, one analyst suggests inviting a child – the client to be impacted by their eventual policy overhaul – into the conversation. This is met with laughter across the room – what could a child possibly know. And yet the suggestion itself is brilliant, and a good reminder of the power of asking people what might be helpful for them, at least as a supplement to doing isolated research with the hope of solving their problems. Since this is a play and Alia is the protagonist, the group of policy makers eventually do ask Alia to join the conversation.
After listening to their polished executive summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s education system, and a brief of the analysts’ policy challenge, Alia (apparently voicing a 2012 idea from columnist Peter Wilby) proposes a simple and clever solution: take the top handful of people from schools all across the country and put them into the top universities. This puts classism at bay by ensuring there is a diverse representation from all regions and secondary schools at “Oxbridge” (the Oxford and Cambridge conglomerate), meanwhile maintaining a merit-based selection system by choosing only the top students in each school.
This proposal is met with atypical panic from the group’s Etonian (an elite private boy’s school in England – from where a staggering 19 of the UK’s 75 prime ministers have hailed), who is immediately flustered by the idea yet stumbling to find eloquent language to explain why this proposal wouldn’t work. He finally comes up with a dubious argument: that Eton instills a sense of excellence – a concept not defined further but which he is convinced other schools lack. And yet, as we learned from one mother in an earlier scene, achieving excellence despite a not particularly well-connected background may be more difficult than when you’re part of the youngest gentlemen’s club in England.
In the classroom, Alia’s source of inspiration may just be her teacher, whose mission to teach his [public, public school] students is fueled by tireless energy and enthusiasm, despite how difficult to teach some of them might be. The professor has a huge capacity to empathize with his students’ respective situations, as witnessed in one scene where he is alone on stage, writing a letter to an unnerved parent who has filed a complaint against him. At first resistant to apologizing to the said mother for having exerted discipline on her misbehaving child, the professor reflects and gives an even more expansive apology, addressing a lot of other things which may be wrong in her life (“I’m sorry that your life isn’t how you pictured it would be; I’m sorry that your husband hits you sometimes; I’m sorry that things are unfair…”). His “apology” serves as a reminder that the stress and tension directed at him by this parent is likely a by-product of many other factors, rather than a direct result of their one relationship. This shines yet another flashlight on how difficult it must be for students to enjoy learning when their homes aren’t stable, and how difficult it must be for the teachers held accountable to teach them.
After all the amusing illumination of holes in the system, and the suggestion that individual success can be achieved regardless of the institutions one is a part of, the final scene of Alia’s acceptance into Oxford was a slightly anti-climactic ending. Despite the prestige of Oxford (or rather, precisely because of it), it would have made for a more interesting story if Alia was offered a beginner seat at the policy-making table to implement her proposal, or had decided to attend her local university, or to create a new path which was entirely her own. After exposing so many of the biases and assumptions we carry about education, it is surprising that no questions are asked of the Oxbridge institution as an end in itself. Instead, the mark of a happy ending for our intellectually curious and driven Alia is acceptance into an elite university.
One can only hope that Alia’s ending doesn’t in fact stop at Oxford. As we’ve learned throughout the show, an individual’s education may be as much thanks to luck and breeding as it is to raw intelligence. Hence we must believe that Alia goes on to make the most of such a luxury: spending time with what we assume are the world’s finest professors to absorb as much as possible of their respective specialties, growing understanding and appreciation for the origins of her fellow classmates, and continuing to ask well-intentioned questions throughout. After all, given we increasingly appreciate a good education with time, Oxford will just be her foundation: the rest of her life must remain a university.