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Roll up, roll up

Sarah Scally meets the creators of a dynamic circus project whose courses generate teamwork and support without competition and antagonism

The lights dim slightly and Ken gives the cue to fade the music, ready for the first performers. There is a hush from the audience as two jugglers enter the spotlight. This is the culmination of their day's work and they are eager to please. Along with 12 other students, they have been taking part in a circus skills training day run by Head for Heights - The National Circus Project, the brainchild of Geoff Gardner and Ken Gibson.

Ken is an energetic person and seems to be in perpetual motion. Today he and Geoff have been teaching students about the beauty of teamwork, having been brought into a group of students who weren't working together cohesively. They took command of the class immediately and students, previously slumped in their chairs, appeared to grow another 5cm as they woke up to see what the buzz was about.

As an American with the accent still intact, Ken miraculously grabbed the attention of the group straight away. He spent several years teaching English and drama in the US before moving to Dorset five years ago and working for Dorset Enterprise and Skills, a not-for-profit organisation. He ran employability training sessions within schools and found he thoroughly enjoyed being back in the classroom. The employability umbrella covered a host of subjects, which meant he taught students about marketing a business one day, while preparing students for work-experience the next.

Geoff, on the other hand, has spent nearly 15 years working with schools and youth clubs as well as entertaining at parties and fetes.

One particular Monday, Ken remembers having a breakthrough. He was running a team-building day, which wasn't going well. He was pushed close to his limit by difficult students and was forced to think of radical alternatives to keep the day running smoothly. Suddenly, he remembered his car full of circus equipment, left over from helping Geoff at a fete the weekend before. Ken could spin a plate and make a balloon dog, so he decided to teach these tricks to the students.

"A circus atmosphere developed. Some of the kids were learning balloon modelling while others were attempting to juggle or spin plates. Around the room interesting dynamics emerged, but better still everyone was smiling, having fun and helping each other. Tables and chairs were pushed to one side, everyone was active, teachers started to join in and engage with the kids."

Ken was fascinated by this response - the teachers became students and everyone was learning a new skill - so he decided they should put on a show at the end of the day.

"It was amazing," he says. "The students worked out who was to do what, praising each other for their efforts and ensuring that everyone had something to do. The atmosphere was one of support, not stress, and students were coaching each other, setting their own objectives. Two boys who normally hated each other were working together on a juggling act."

Ken has always been one for involvement and getting everyone to participate. He realised that the less co-ordinated students were able to get involved here, working out the music for the show, and drawing posters to advertise the event.

"The circus show was great," he says. "Teachers popped in with other students to watch and the atmosphere was fantastic. The students loved the day and I could hear others asking their teachers when they could do it too."

Not one to sit still, Ken spent months learning the skills of a circus performer and stockpiling equipment to take on his circus days. Four years ago, Geoff and Ken decided to give the idea a real push and together they formed Head for Heights - The National Circus Project.

As part of their repertoire, students can now use a diabolo, a unicycle, stilts, and experience juggling, plate spinning, balloon modelling - the list is endless and there is plenty of equipment for a sizeable class to be happy. As Ken puts it: "This encourages a level playing field for all, as none of them have any real experience of this kind of thing. We've found that it generates teamwork without any competition or antagonism and everyone has a fantastic time - even the teachers."

What is obvious to anyone watching is that circus skills can be linked to a number of subjects on a school curriculum - maths, business studies, PE, to name but a few. As the students get active their concentration improves, making the learning experience more profound. No one fidgets or loses attention.

Today's show ends with a grand flourish from the performers and prolonged applause from the audience. It all underlines the theory that ultimately everyone wants to achieve something - it is just how you keep them motivated along the route to that achievement. Having seen Ken and Geoff in action, however, motivation has honestly not been a problem for these students.

* Head for Heights - The National Circus Project is based in Sturminster Newton, Dorset. Various courses can be arranged, centred around team-building or motivational days. Longer courses to be arranged whereby students stage their own circus: they perform a show, market the show and sell the tickets.

Teacher training days are also available.

Tel: 01258 817411

* Dorset Enterprise and Skills are based at Bournemouth Airport Tel: 01202 575500

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