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Big top thinking gets pupils motivated

A school curriculum has been juggled to include circus skills, writes Gerald Haigh

Primary school life is so full of circus-related metaphors (spinning plates, tight-ropes, juggling, safety nets) that virtually converting the whole institution into one isn't such a big step.

At the 105-pupil Manor primary in Drayton Bassett, Staff-ordshire, it seemed quite natural to find a huge papier mache ringmaster in the entrance hall, and to meet Year 6 children hurtling gleefully round the playground on those tiny knees-under-your-chin bikes that are standard clown equipment.

Look beyond all the excitement, though, and there are clear links to the curriculum - Manor's teachers are proving, as are so many other primaries, that it is still possible, amid all of the pressures, to be creative and do some of the things that make learning fun.

Jane Mason, Manor's head, is committed to keeping the arts alive - the school has had one big dance project already this year, and another one is planned. The month of June sees the great circus project, with circus-related writing ("jolly jugglers juggle juicy jelly") maths and science.

Crucial to the enterprise was the arrival into reception in the spring of Sellam Cottle, son of Polly Cottle and Jeff Jay, performers in a circus that had arrived for the summer at nearby Drayton Manor Park. Jeff and Polly took an interest in the school and were keen to support the circus project.

Jeff, a circus person from the age of 14 ("I can't say I ran away to the circus, because my mum packed my bag") is a comedy trampolinist. Polly "does the silks" (rolling down long bolts of material).

To support Manor primary, Jeff finishes his afternoon performance and dashes straight to the school in his make-up ("funny looks from the mums on the playground") where he does face painting and sessions on circus history.

Also working in the school is a circus skills group, Jetto Entertainment, who are working once a week with every year group on tightrope walking, juggling and mini-cycling. Leader John Dee, an ex-circus trapeze artist, is enthusiastic about the transferability of what he does with children.

"What we're doing is teaching the kids to listen and work hard, and be sensible - all under the guise of circus skills."

He is keen to emphasise just how good all children are at listening and soaking up information about something that they're really keen to do.

"It's staggering how well they listen - and when they do the work you can tell they've been listening because you can see them doing exactly what you've said."

The children are making rapid progress.

"At the end of three weeks some of them will be walking the tightrope unaided," John Dee predicts.

Jane Mason believes that there's impressive learning going on across the board. "We're catering for all the children's different learning styles - visual, auditory, kinaesthetic."

There's been no difficulty in keeping a circus theme going through the various areas of the national curriculum - the history of the circus, the places it visits, creative writing, art, maths problems.

For teachers brought up on Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work, however, it has been a little discomfiting, especially as some of the planning sessions have harked back to an earlier style.

Other, longer-serving colleagues, have found themselves on familiar ground.

Sue Ward, who teaches a combined Year 34 class, and started in the profession 30 years ago, described the way she and the others have used "topic webs". This is a technique whereby, essentially, you write the name of the topic - "circus" or whatever - in the middle of the page - and then shoot branches out to the various curriculum areas to show how each will link to each other and to the centre.

"Some of us are old enough to remember that approach," she says. "It's nice to feel in control."

She's also pleased with what the children are achieving in terms of more formal requirements. "We've had some good results - nice writing on visits to the circus, and in science we've done work on balance, levers, centres of gravity, all of it tied to what children are actually seeing. It is different, less formal and it is bringing creativity, pleasure and enjoyment back into the curriculum."

Clearly, there are many lessons to be learned from a project like this.

Jane Mason believes, for example, that some children, because of their preferred learning style, aren't well served by a formal approach.

She says: "A creative child, whose inclinations are to music and dance, will thrive academically if that creativity is understood and encouraged by a sensitive teacher."

Jetto Entertainment does circus skills workshops for schools within about a hundred miles of Birmingham, tel 01543 372443

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