Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Educating Rita

A play by William Russell about class culture and liberal education

            Educating Rita is a play written by Willy Russell in 1980 and made into a feature film starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters in 1983. The play and film were well received and Walters received an Academy Award nomination for her role as Rita. 

            Rita is a 26 years old uneducated working class hairdresser living in the poor part of Liverpool.  The expectations of her by her immediate social circle (which represents society) are no greater than to have kids and be a good wife to her husband Denny.  However, Rita wants to create choices in her life and is not willing to settle for what “is expected of her”.  Rita feels to provide herself with these choices she has to “find herself” and she does this by seeking an education at the Open University. The play is written to be somewhat autobiographical of Russell’s life.  Indeed, Willy Russell was born outside of Liverpool, dropped out of school at 15 and became a hairdresser.   He then decided to go back to school (passing his O levels in night school) and then later trained to be a drama teacher where he began to initiate his career as a playwright.


            The story has two key players, Rita and Frank. Rita is trying to better herself and obtain an education so she can “ talk about things that matter.”  In the beginning of the movie, Rita has little confidence in herself and her ability.  Therein she meets Frank, her Open University tutor.  Frank (who is played by Michael Caine in the movie) is an alcoholic professor who has obviously lost interest in his life.  Rita is a breath of fresh air for Frank because of her zest for life, enthusiasm to learn and her uninhibited way of life.  Throughout the movie Rita and Frank grow and learn from each other. In the beginning of the movie Rita is very dependant on Frank and by the end of the movie it is Frank that is dependant on Rita.  Rita eventually realizes her capabilities and that the education didn’t change her but only made her aware and gave her confidence in what she could accomplish.  Frank, with the help of Rita is able to see and acknowledge the mess his life is in and finally makes a move to change it.  A wonderful metaphor is when Rita finally cuts Franks hair at the end of the film as if to cut him away from his old life and allow him to run toward his new one.


            Educating Rita is a play/movie that actually deals with many different issues, social class issues, self –realization, education etc.  It has often been compared to Pygmalion (My Fair Lady); Eliza seeks to improve herself via improving her English with the help of professor Higgins.  However in both these plays, it is the teacher that also goes through a transformation because of the relationship with their student.   Rita transforms from a fast speaking hairdresser to a waitress in a bistro. Rita’s outward appearance changes from flashy to more conservative and she begins to become less dependant on Frank.  Frank transforms from being a cynical and bored person to one who enjoyed having someone (Rita) depend on him and value him.  However when Frank realizes that Rita no longer needs him he finally breaks down and realizes the state of his life.

            This play exemplifies the adult learner as someone who is motivated, self-directed and has a drive to learn about something that is specifically important to them.  In this case it was Rita’s need to learn about literature so she could carry a meaningful conversation. This play also showed some of the barriers facing many adult learners: social pressures, finances, lack of confidence. The teaching style shown in the play seemed to imply the use of a humanistic philosophy.  Throughout the play Rita had to analyze the literature that she read and produce essays, which Frank would provide feedback on and challenge her to look at her ideas again, thus encouraging critical thought and the learning depends on how much Rita is willing to reveal to herself.  By the end of the play, Rita does reach a point of self-realization.    

Educating Rita has been used as the base for one published book called “Rita and her Sisters” by Roseanne Benn, Jane Elliot, and Pat Whaley.  This book looks at continuing education and lifelong learning as it relates to women.  It discusses the barriers and the challenges facing women in obtaining an education and provides future suggestions to break these down.  Although Willy Russell’s main reason for the film was not to explore the educational aspect, his movie does provide a wonderful vehicle to look at adult learning, adult learning for women, especially those from a lower socio-economic class and explore the type of self transformation that can occur in part by education.


Educating Rita is a wonderful movie that explores many different issues related to class, gender, intelligence and education.  Rita and Frank, the main characters, both go through a transformation that leaves them in a state of self-realization.  The education that was provided by the Open University (because of its extended hours) allowed the self motivated Rita to pursue her dreams and learn about literature.  It gave her the confidence to make choices as to how she wanted to live her life, where she wanted to live and what she what to do with her life. 


1)      Educating Rita. (Film), Columbia Pictures, 1983.

2)      URL:

3)      URL: Educating Rita and her Sisters)

4)      URL:

Prepared by Deborah Albuquerque (OISE/University of Toronto)

December 2001

Citation: Albuquerque, Deborah (2001). 1980: Educating Rita: A play by William Russell about class culture and liberal education. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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