The Cost of Labour | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
A sketch by Boardman Robinson of the New York Tribune depicting a miner emerging out of the earth with a pick axe and head seeking the light above.

The Cost of Labour

Students explore the moral codes of the world of the play, before being introduced to the concept of a universe of obligation and participating in a debate on workers’ rights.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance



English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights


About this Lesson

In the previous lesson, students explored the character of Mr Birling, analysing Priestley’s presentation of him and selecting relevant evidence to support claims about his character. Students also reflected on the connection between Mr Birling’s identity and his values, before considering their own identities and values. This critical engagement with the text and themselves laid the foundation for exploring the relationship between moral codes, values, and choices. 

In this lesson, students will continue to examine the morals and values of the world which the characters inhabit, a world which Priestley meant to be representative of Edwardian society. Through this investigation, they will learn a new concept – universe of obligation – the term sociologist Helen Fein coined to describe the circle of individuals and groups within a society ‘toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends’. 1 Understanding the concept of a universe of obligation provides important insights into the behaviour of individuals, groups, and nations throughout history. It also helps students think more deeply about the benefits of being part of a society’s ‘in’ group and the consequences of being part of an ‘out’ group. 

After having explored the concept of a universe of obligation, students will continue to read the play, before starting to consider the moral choices that the characters, notably Mr Birling, made in the past. They will then explore the theme of responsibility in the form of a debate, referring to Mr Birling’s sacking of Eva Smith for leading the strike action for higher wages. It is worth remembering that Mr Birling’s sacking of Eva Smith would have occurred during the period known as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’ (1910–14), when members of the working class took to the streets in mass actions and strikes, demanding fairer workers’ rights. The activities in this lesson will deepen students’ understanding of the characters in the play and the key theme of social responsibility, whilst encouraging them to reflect on society at large and think about what forces decide who is worthy of respect and caring, and who is not.

The activities in this lesson refer to pages 10–16 of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.

  • 1Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.
  • Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO4)
  • Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Knowledge of Content (Lit-AO1/AO3)
  • Spoken Language Skills (Lang-AO8, Lang-AO9)

Students critically read the Universe of Obligation Excerpt handout, thinking first about how this framing of individual and collective responsibility relates to the world around them and then, when reading the play, how it is relevant to the character of Mr Birling. The completion of a Universe of Obligation Graphic Organiser for Birling and the preparation for the debate requires critical thought, critical reading, and evidence-based reasoning as students need to scour the play for evidence to support their views and interpretations. This process also strengthens student knowledge of the content of the play. Additionally, the debate develops students’ spoken language skills, whilst also boosting student engagement as it gives students a means of accessing the play’s content in a dynamic and interesting way. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to develop and verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • What are the moral codes and values of the fictional world of the play? 
  • How do these moral codes and values influence the characters’ behaviour?  
  • Where do we learn moral codes and values, and how do they impact the choices available to us and the choices we ultimately make?
  • Students will recognise the ways in which our morals and values can have an impact on our decision-making process and the choices we ultimately make.
  • Students will participate in a debate to explore how people ascribe to conflicting views of the world.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 8 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 2 handouts
  • 1 extension activity
  • 1 homework suggestion

Collecting ourselves into groups is a natural behaviour. Being part of a group helps us meet our most basic needs: we share culture, values, and beliefs, and we satisfy our desire to belong. Like individuals, groups have identities. How a group defines itself determines who is entitled to its benefits and who is not. Sometimes the consequences of being excluded from a group are minor or harmless. For example, someone who does not enjoy running is unlikely to be affected by not being a member of a running club. But sometimes the consequences can be substantial, even disastrous. If someone is denied citizenship by a country, their freedom, livelihood, or safety may be at risk. Moreover, a society’s universe of obligation can change. Individuals and groups that are respected and protected members of a society at one time may find themselves outside the universe of obligation when circumstances are different.

Societies with governments dedicated to democratic values and human rights tend to define their collective universe of obligation in a more expansive and inclusive manner than other societies do. Yet, even within democratic countries, political movements and ideologies such as nationalism, racism, or anti-Semitism can take hold and lead to a more narrow definition of whose rights and privileges deserve protection and whose do not. In times of crisis – such as war or economic depression – societies tend to define more narrowly who is ‘one of us’ and whose loyalty is now under suspicion, making them undeserving of protection and respect. Individuals or groups who fall outside a nation’s universe of obligation become vulnerable not only to being deprived of the rights, privileges, and economic benefits afforded to citizens but also to expulsion, physical harm, and, in the most extreme cases, genocide, as Helen Fein warned when she articulated this concept in the 1970s.

Although Fein conceived of the term to describe the way nations determine membership, we can also recognise that individuals have a universe of obligation – the circle of individuals a person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. This understanding helps us recognise the internalised hierarchies that influence how we think about and respond to the needs of others. While it is neither practical nor possible that one’s universe of obligation could include everyone in its centre (the position of most importance), acknowledging the way we think about and prioritise our obligations towards others can help us act in a more thoughtful and compassionate manner.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Before the lesson, hang two signs – ‘Strongly Agree’ and ‘Strongly Disagree’ – at either end of your classroom. Completing this step in advance of the lesson facilitates a smooth transition from reading the play to the Barometer activity.

Before engaging in a class debate in Part II of this lesson, we recommend that you and your students revisit your class contract to ensure that all students are able to share their views and to encourage students to respond to each other’s points politely and with respect. It might also be worth moving your tables out of the way for the debate activity to enable the students to line up against opposite sides of the room easily.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

  • Tell students that in this lesson they will be learning about a concept of human behaviour called universe of obligation, and then thinking about how it is relevant to the characters in the play. 
  • First, ask students to consider the idea of group membership in a journal response: 
    • What groups do you belong to? 
    • What do you gain by belonging to these groups? 
    • What do you sacrifice, compromise, or give up by belonging to these groups?
  • Then ask students to share their ideas they feel comfortable sharing with a partner in a Think, Pair, Share before moving to the next activity.
  • Introduce the concept of a universe of obligation to students by first asking students to define the term ‘obligation’ and writing up their ideas on the board. Then explain that a universe of obligation is one way to consider the benefits of belonging to groups and the consequences of being excluded. An individual or group’s universe of obligation represents the extent to which they feel responsible for others, and we often feel a greater sense of responsibility for those who belong to the same groups that we do.
  • Hand out the Universe of Obligation Excerpt and read it aloud. You might pause after each paragraph to check for understanding and ask students to underline one sentence in the paragraph that helps them better understand the benefits and costs of group membership or universe of obligation. Ask one or two students to share what they underlined and explain why before moving to the next paragraph.
  • Next, project and discuss the following questions as a whole class:
    • What factors influence the way a society defines its universe of obligation? In what ways might a nation or community signal who is part of its universe of obligation and who is not?
    • What do you think might be some of the consequences for those who are not within a society’s universe of obligation?
    • How would you describe your nation’s universe of obligation? Your school’s? Your own?
  • Explain to students that they will now be reading the next section of the play and should think about how the concept of a universe of obligation applies to the play.
  • Assign five students different reading parts and have them take their relevant props from the prop box. You will need students for the following roles: Eric, Mr Birling, Edna, Gerald, and Inspector Goole. 
  • Read the section from ‘the sharp ring of a front door bell’ (top of p. 10) to ‘Sheila has now entered’ (bottom of p. 16). You may wish to arrange the classroom so that you have a mock stage at the front, so students perform the scene to the class. 
  • Ask students who are not reading out specific character parts to place a star in the margin of their book or mark with a sticky note moments that help them understand Mr Birling’s universe of obligation – the individuals and groups that fall within and outside of his circle of responsibility.
  • Lead a Barometer activity to encourage your students to reflect on and discuss Birling’s sacking of Eva Smith. 
  • Read the following statement: ‘Birling was wrong to sack Eva Smith.’ Give students a few minutes to think quietly about their answers. Then have them indicate the extent to which they agree with the statement by standing along the continuum between the ‘Strongly Agree’ and ‘Strongly Disagree’ signs. 
  • After students have lined up, first have them turn and talk to the student next to them to explain why they chose this place on this line so everyone has a chance to speak and process together. 
  • Then facilitate a discussion in which you ask students to explain why they chose to stand where they are standing. Then, give students the opportunity to move places after they have heard the views of others.

Finally, ask your students to debrief the activity by responding to the following questions in their journals or for homework:

  • How did the Barometer activity confirm or challenge your thinking about Birling’s sacking of Eva Smith? 
  • What was the most convincing argument you heard? What made the argument convincing? 
  • Does Eva Smith fall inside or outside of Mr Birling’s universe of obligation? What makes you say that?

Part II Activities

  • Start by reminding students that in the first part of the lesson, they learnt about the concept of a universe of obligation, which we might also call someone’s circle of responsibility. 
  • Before asking students to illustrate Mr Birling’s universe of obligation using the Universe of Obligation Graphic Organiser, model the activity by drawing four concentric circles on the board and asking the class to consider where Mr Birling might place his wife, Mrs Birling, on the graphic organiser and then explain their answer using evidence from the text and the historical context of the play. 
  • Help students connect this activity to what they learnt about ‘relevant and not relevant evidence’ by reminding them that their claim is their placement of Mrs Birling and their evidence supports this decision (‘I think that Mr Birling would place his wife in circle #2 because on page ___, he says “____” and this quotation suggests that...’).
  • Ask students to complete the Universe of Obligation Graphic Organiser for Mr Birling with a partner. They should include all of the characters in the play that they have met thus far, as well as Eva Smith and the workers at his factory. It might be helpful to first quickly brainstorm some ideas on the board that are relevant to the character of Mr Birling and Edwardian society. You may want to give students the option of adding quotations from the play to support their choices.
  • Next, project and ask pairs to discuss the following questions, before leading a short class discussion:
    • What factors impact Mr Birling’s universe of obligation?
    • Where should workers fall in a business owner’s universe of obligation? What makes you say that?
    • What are the consequences for workers and for society if workers fall inside/outside of their employer’s universe of obligation? Who should be responsible for the rights and protection of workers?
  • Explain to students that they will be engaging in a class debate on the statement: Workers’ rights should be championed above all else.
  • Inform half of the room that they are playing the role of the proposition (the Union of Factory Workers who support the statement) and the other half that they are playing the role of the opposition (Birling & Company who are against the statement).
  • Have students write a three-column table in their notebooks. In the left column, they should write their claims; in the middle one, the evidence from the text that supports their claims and the corresponding page number; and in the right column, the supporting ideas that link to their existing knowledge. 
  • Project the PowerPoint slide with the example of the three-column table, which models a claim, the evidence, and supporting ideas, to help students think about how to develop their argument.
  • Then give students 10–15 minutes to work in pairs and come up with at least three claims with evidence and supporting ideas for the side that they are representing. For your teacher notes, here are some of the possible claims and evidence for each side they might make:
Possible Claims and Evidence for Each Side
Proposition Opposition
Claim People need to be treated with care and compassion. Business owners know what is best for their businesses.
Evidence Sheila: ‘These girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people’. (p. 19) Mr Birling: ‘It’s my duty to keep labour costs down’. (p. 15)
Supporting Idea People are not machines or vehicles through which to make a profit. All workers should be respected as fellow humans and treated with the same regard as we treat our loved ones. Businesses are built to make a profit. If they don’t, they will fail – the business owners and workers will lose out if a company goes bankrupt. We need to protect business for the benefit of workers and employers.
Claim Workers are powerless and have to take what work is available in their area. Workers have a choice about where they work.
Evidence Eric: ‘It isn’t [a free country] if you can’t go and work somewhere else’. (p. 15) Mr Birling: ‘It’s a free country’. (p. 15)
Supporting Idea Some people have no choice about where they can work, so they have to accept whatever conditions are thrust upon them. People do have a choice and there are always other options available – there is no reason to believe Eva Smith’s case is the norm.
Claim Workers without rights are vulnerable to exploitation. Workers’ rights should not be considered above employers’ rights.
Evidence Inspector: ‘It’s better to ask for the earth than to take it’. (p. 15) Mr Birling: ‘If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth’. (p. 15)
Supporting Idea Employers may be placing unfair demands on their workers, getting all that they can to make a profit out of their labour. If workers have endless rights then it puts employers in a vulnerable position – they could be sued and go bankrupt.
Claim Workers need to be free to protest. Workers may make excessive and/or unnecessary demands.
Evidence Eric: ‘Why shouldn’t they try for higher wages? We try for the highest possible prices’. (p. 16) Mr Birling: ‘We let them all come back – at the old rates’. (p. 15)
Supporting Idea People should be able to go on strike to secure better working conditions without a risk of losing their jobs. If the wages were so poor, then surely the strike would have lasted longer. This serves to show that this was a case of workers trying to get more than they needed out of their employers.
Claim People’s lives are at risk. Business interests need to be protected to make it desirable to start a business.
Evidence Eva Smith’s suicide. Mr Birling: ‘If I’d agreed to this demand for a new rate we’d have added about twelve per cent to our labour costs’. (p. 15)
Supporting Idea Without protections in place, people might come to serious harm. Some might die from dangers at the workplace, others might be placed in an impossible position where death feels preferable to life. Starting a business can be a risky venture – it needs to be profitable so that people want to do it. What’s more, more business means more jobs and better prices for consumers.


  • After pairs have found evidence to support their claims and completed their grids, project the slide with the following debate sentence starters and give the pairs three minutes to practice expressing their ideas:
    • Everyone present here today, I am sure would agree with...
    • There is no doubt that...
    • You speak persuasively, but your arguments are...
    • There is little evidence that what you say is...
    • Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you to discuss...
    • My words clearly show...
    • The evidence is clear...
    • As a society we must...
    • How would you feel if...?
    • What would happen if...?
  • Ask students to keep the presentation of their points to under 30 seconds. To make sure everyone is participating and has equal time, set a timer. Call ‘start’ for the first side and then ‘time’ after 30 seconds. 
  • Next, call the students back to debate as a class. Ask those representing the Union of Factory Workers to line up on one side of the room and those representing Birling & Company to line up on the other.
  • Project the PowerPoint slide with the image of the debate structure to familiarise students with the speaking order. Then start the debate.
  • Alternate between proposition and opposition, and encourage the students to keep the presentation of their points to under 30 seconds. Inform them that they should briefly respond to the argument outlined previously before they outline their own.
  • When all students who wanted to speak have spoken, ask students to vote on which side they felt debated the most persuasively to win the argument.

Facilitate a short class discussion using the following questions:

  • How many of you were debating the side you believe in? 
  • How did it feel to argue for the side you believe to be true if that is the one you were assigned?
  • How did it feel to argue for the opposing side if that is the one you were assigned?
  • Should workers’ rights be championed above all else? Why or why not?
  • What is the most convincing evidence you heard today on both sides of the issue? (one for each)

Extension Activity

Ask your students to make a pictorial representation of the concept of a universe of obligation using images, words, phrases, and colour based on their understanding of ‘universe’ and ‘obligation’ and what those words might mean when used together in this way.

Homework Suggestion

For homework, ask students to write a response to the following questions regarding Mr Birling’s universe of obligation: 

  1. Given what you have read so far, what factors influence who Mr Birling includes in his universe of obligation and who he excludes? Write two claims and use at least two pieces of evidence from the text to support each claim. 
  2. What are the possible consequences of being included and excluded from the universe of obligation of someone like Mr Birling? What do these consequences suggest about the power Mr Birling possesses?
  3. What factors, if any, might motivate someone to expand or shrink their universe of obligation, thus including or excluding more individuals and groups of people?

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