When the school play became a farce

Disorganised, lost, late – and that was just the parents. Mary Farquarson was shocked by the performance of the adults at her daughter's drama evening
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The Independent Online

The drama teacher, a wired bundle of tension, every nerve stretched by two days of preparation and one day spent watching performances with the GCSE examiner, waved an envoy towards the school gates.

The drama teacher, a wired bundle of tension, every nerve stretched by two days of preparation and one day spent watching performances with the GCSE examiner, waved an envoy towards the school gates.

"See if there are any more parents who haven't found their way here," he told a sixth-former helping with stage management. It was the night of performances to parents. We had skidded into school just in time at 7pm, having been held up by jams across north London from home to this, our GCSE-candidate daughter's school.

Inside we headed for Drama One, but were sent upstairs to a common room. "Parents are waiting there," a brisk woman teacher told us. A handful of other parents was huddled in puzzled groups. The minutes ticked by. At 7.20pm I wondered downstairs. The nervy head of drama was issuing instruction. "But I've just been," said the sixth-former. "Go again," said the drama head. "Go around all the entrances. Make sure there isn't anybody waiting around."

At 7.40pm he gave up and began to usher the handful of parents in. Settling everybody took another 10 minutes. Then the lights went down and the first group came on stage. My daughter is my third child to take drama GCSE and, as ever, I was stunned by the mixture of maturity, excellence and sudden, raw naivety . The children write and direct the plays, starting from scratch in a three-day residential drama workshop. This lot had taken themes ranging from bullying and revenge, complete with a ghost coming back to destroy the children of his old tormentors, to a song-and-dance routine about 11 September, looking at the rights and wrongs of terrorism. Heavy stuff but well handled, and complete with laughs.

The knocking outside the door started midway through the second performance. Thump, rattle, hammer. Shouting voices. More rattling. A stir as a teacher went out through a rear door. More voices. On stage the children carried on as if deaf. There were rustles between performances as the late-arriving parents were brought in through the rear door.

Halfway through the third performance a second onslaught of hammering started. This time there was an angry exchange. We couldn't hear the words, only the pitch. During the final performance, the star of which was a boy of six foot seven who managed to switch from low-life gambler to preacher man so convincingly that he caused a gale of laughter around the audience, the hammering started again. It was two hours after the performances had been due to start. The teacher let the latecomers in after the show was over. They looked disappointed – and surprised.

Having sat through two previous GCSE drama nights, the first in 1996 and the second in 2000, I was amazed. Previously, parents had rolled up on time. Most of the cast had had at least one family member present. This time, many pupils had no one. The drama head rolled his eyes, exhausted. He had sent out letters, and he had told kids to warn their parents they must be punctual.

One teacher from a neighbouring school, in the audience to see his own child perform, was resigned. "It's cultural," he said. "It's not that the parents don't care." The school is increasingly ethnically mixed, this being an area rich in refugees.

Telling the story the next day to a friend who is a recently recruited lay Ofsted inspector working in primary schools, I was treated to a return anecdote. He had been to a school in Tyneside when the lead inspector was meeting parents.

The parents, primarily white and very deprived, were howling for the head's blood. They were complaining about children being excluded for no good reason. None of the offenders, the parents insisted, had done more than a little justified slapping around. One father, my Ofsted man said, had complained that his child was forced to sit still on a chair. He kept repeating his complaint. "He said he thought it was mental cruelty," said the Ofsted man. "The parents' lack of logic was unshiftable. I have been into lots of schools like this, on estates where no one has been employed for three generations."

Somewhere between those incidents, I think, is a measure of how much work Estelle Morris is creating for herself if she hopes to use court orders and threats to make the sort of supportive parents she wants out of the parents the school system now has.