Forty years on – We Can All Learn from Educating Rita

By Melissa Jackson

It seems inconceivable that Educating Rita – the much-loved Pygmalion-esque play, which tells the story of a working-class woman, for whom a return to education opens up a whole new world – is 40 years old. Sadly, a scheduled anniversary tour has been postponed in the current climate, but it doesn’t stop us celebrating the play’s enduring appeal and its legacy… the importance of education at any age.

When Willy Russell brought Educating Rita to the stage in 1980, we were sampling the starter menu of Thatcher’s Britain. It was a time of rising unemployment, recession and an emerging gulf between the haves and the have nots. My, how this resonates, 40 years on.

The eponymous heroine is an endearing 26-year-old Liverpudlian hairdresser who, aspirationally, believes there is a whole world to conquer beyond her routine and pedestrian life by pursuing an Open University (OU) course.

At its heart, Russell’s witty, touching and poignant play is the study of a young working-class woman’s hunger to better herself.

The play is somewhat autobiographical and a shining example of how a return to education sparked a motivational career change of which we are the beneficiaries.

Russell became a hairdresser after leaving school at the age of 15 with one O-Level in English language. He returned to education at the age of 20 and took up teaching and, beyond this, metamorphosed into one of the outstanding playwrights of recent times, with a reputation for creating strong, female characters.

I’m sure many people are currently contemplating their future, following the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the economy and job prospects, and – like Rita – are considering or have signed up for an educational course in a bid to bolster their qualifications and improve their chances of securing employment or promotion.

For those on furlough, it’s probably never been a better time to try something new.

Recent research by – the online recruitment website – has identified a surge in people enrolling in teaching, programming, and people-management courses as individuals have recognised the importance of up-skilling or re-skilling, following the transformation of the employment landscape due to Covid-19.

It shows that workers and job seekers are preparing for the future British economy by enhancing their CVs and adapting their skills to make them more employable in sectors which have expanded during the pandemic.

The number of mature students at universities in the UK has been rising, according to UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), and the biggest increase seen in 2020, as of the January deadline, was with those aged 35 and over. It’s too early to assess the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on UCAS applications, but many would-be mature students say the pandemic has only increased their desire to study.

I have two female friends who left school at 18 and later decided to return to University as a gateway to a new career path and both achieved this with exceptional results. Just like Rita before them, they’ve enjoyed a sense of fulfilment that has seen them grow, both personally and professionally – a great return on their return to education.


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