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Great balls of fire

A festival aiming to give pupils a drug-free high entailed a 24,000-mile round trip. Jerome Monahan reports

After all the rivalry of the Rugby World Cup, here is a tale of English and Australian co-operation and joint celebration. It involves more than 131 pupils, teachers and parents from an East Yorkshire school in a 12,000-mile journey to stage a dance spectacular based on the Great Fire of London.

Their goal was to be the first UK guest performers in an Australian Rock Eisteddfod in Brisbane - one of its longest- running youth cultural events.

"Really, we invited ourselves," says Julian Watson, a music teacher at Driffield school. "The idea cropped up as a fantasy thought one break time and then grew - helped by the presence of an ex-teacher of ours in Sydney."

Mr Watson admits it was a daunting prospect. Not just because of the pound;25,000 cost. There was also the challenge of performing in Australia where the Rock Eisteddfod concept was developed in the 1980s.

Initially, the events were staged by a Sydney radio station, but in 1988 they were adopted by the New South Wales health department as a means of promoting the idea of young people striving for healthy "kicks", free of drugs, cigarettes or excessive drinking. Schools were asked to stage short dance dramas, typically between six and eight minutes long, using contemporary rock music.

The concept took hold. It travelled too, arriving in England in 1995 thanks to sponsorship from Hampshire police, and heading north the following year.

"Since then, it has become a key part of our lifestyle unit's work," says Humberside PC Kate Atkins, "helping to underline the possibility of a drug-free high among hundreds of the region's young people."

Driffield are the Northern Rock Challenge champions this year, but it was their 2002 performance that they decided to export Down Under, largely because the set was less cumbersome and could fit into two ship-board containers allowed for in the budget.

"The show focused on the idea that good can come out of bad events," says Roxanne Croucher, 15, who played the plague-carrying rat driven off by the flames that consumed London in 1666. "Our performance compared well with others: we got loads of positive comments."

"People were amazingly friendly," says Andrew Towse, a parent. "We travelled ahead to put the set together in Brisbane and we had to rely on the Australians for tools. Asking for hammers and screwdrivers proved a real ice-breaker."

The journey to Brisbane was an unexpected extra hurdle that became a necessity when the Sydney event Driffield had been aiming for was put off at the last minute. The extra 1,500-mile round trip added significantly to the costs and meant performers had to follow up their 11pm performance in Brisbane with a 13-hour coach journey to their base at the Colloray Centre outside Sydney.

"We flew to Brisbane early in the morning," explains Elizabeth Towse, 12, another of the rats. "Fifty minutes before we went on, we were all asleep in the changing room. We had to go outside to get warmed up and it turned out to be one of the best we have ever done. The atmosphere on the coach going back was great."

All agree that as a vehicle for encouraging a healthy lifestyle the Rock Challenge concept really works. Maureen Mulligan, a performing arts teacher at Driffield, says: "Students know they must sign a pledge not to smoke or take drugs. For those with a real habit, there is plenty of counselling on hand from local doctors and in-school mentors. The emphasis is not on being punitive, but supportive.

"Overall, this trip was a real eye-opener," she said. "Driffield is a small market town and there were some who had never been on an aeroplane before.

There are definitely students who are now contemplating taking a gap year abroad thanks to this adventure."

Driffield School ( booked through Emerald Global Limited. Tel: 020 7312 1727. It cost each adult pound;1,200 and pupils just under pound;1,000. .Colloray Centre, New South Wales: www.auscamps.asn.auNswSydCampcollaroycentre.html

UK Rock Challenge Tel: 023 8061 7729;

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