Skip to main content

Rude boys back on the rails

Drama workshops are helping pupils at risk of exclusion. David Bocking reports

Mr Jones looks at the camera wearily. "Almost everyone in this class makes me angry," he says. "They're doing things that really piss me off. I was in a slightly bad mood before, but now I'm in a really bad mood." He walks back into his classroom, where his pupils are waiting in various slumped postures. There's a noise from one of the boys. "Can you speak?" asks Mr Jones. "Why are you mumbling?"

Attentively watching the videotape of these painful scenes are Mr Jones's pupils. And with them is a now un-jacketed and much friendlier Mr Jones, alias Ricky Ferguson, a former Glasgow teacher who is now an actor and artistic director of the Proper Job organisation, an agent of change for dozens of Yorkshire schoolchildren.

Watching Ferguson as Mr Jones (and themselves as his unco-operative pupils) are a small group of Year 8 students from Featherstone high school. All volunteered for Proper Job's Rehearsal for Life programme, which uses drama techniques to improve self-confidence and behaviour management - and, in many cases, to bring young people back from the brink.

A few years ago, Proper Job began working with groups of the long-term unemployed, including drug addicts, alcoholics and women who had become pregnant as schoolchildren. "They said their problems started at school," Ferguson explains.

So Proper Job devised the Rehearsal for Life project for 11-to-16-year-old children at risk of being officially excluded by their school, or as Ferguson puts it, of excluding themselves from school life by their own behaviour. It takes introverted children, children who swear at teachers, children who kick the furniture, but children who might just improve their attitude, with a little bit of help.

There's a lot going on as the pupils watch themselves being castigated by Mr Jones. Ferguson wouldn't dream of telling Darrell that he mumbles, but Mr Jones can and does. Darrell, aged 12, can see it for himself. The children see on screen how being rude makes the day more difficult for Mr Jones and, as a result, for his pupils too. And they're learning what they can do about it.

"Sometimes in class I'd get mad and start booting chairs or stuff. People would say calm down and I'd swear at them," says Darrell after the session is over. "Now I just shut my eyes and walk into the room and sit down. I started thinking."

"It's made me more confident," says 13-year-old Kelly. "I can control my temper now, but before I'd go off on a slight little thing. Now I'm thinking about what's going to happen if I do go off."

"Kelly was very quiet, very introverted, with low self-esteem," says Featherstone's deputy head, John Hoyle. "Now she's so positive, she's actually seeking you out to have a chat. Instead of this sullen teenager, she's an attractive person who's really coming out of herself."

Featherstone high is "a tough little school," says Hoyle. The Rehearsal for Life project, he says, is an extension of its mentoring and reward-based work.

"We made it clear it was not meant to be the group to look after naughty kids," Hoyle says. "It was a group of youngsters we could work positively with to give them strategies to manage their behaviour in the rest of the school." The 12 pupils (selected by interview with Proper Job) attend one or two sessions per week, each lasting around two hours. The project produces a newsletter and students are made to feel positive about their inclusion.

But it isn't an easy option. "We want to stretch the students," says Ferguson. "You have to push them, but only so far they don't break."

Activities include setting up a mock office to illustrate a scene where one boy swore at a teacher who'd accused him of drug-taking. The students take turns to act out how the boy could have handled the situation better.

Michelle Cunningham, acting as the teacher, picks apart everyone's excuses.

"Progress?" asks Ferguson after each attempt, and the students tell each other how they could have reacted differently. It's certainly not easy for the boy who inspired the session by acting out how he'd called his teacher a bitch.

Last year's DfES assessment of the Rehearsal for Life project by Ian Popham was clear: it works. "As a process for getting young people at risk of complete disengagement from the education system back on board, and helping them to understand their emotional and behavioural difficulties, I think Rehearsal for Life works excellently," he says.

On the scheme's cost benefits, he weighs a school's pound;3,000 loss following a permanent exclusion against pound;1,500 spent on each participant. "But if someone goes off the rails and stays off the rails and never gets re-engaged again, the costs would be phenomenal," he adds. After a term, the Featherstone pupils have all shown signs of improvement.

Before, there were 12 Year 8 pupils at risk of exclusion; now there are only two.

"Now in English if I say something wrong, my teacher says: 'Think about Proper Job,' and I just go quiet," says 13-year-old Stacey. "If I didn't come here, my behaviour would be even worse and I'd be thrown out of the school."

"Stacey doesn't get it right all the time," says Hoyle. "But she gets it right more often."

Proper Job is at: or 0870 9905052. The project costs from pound;5,000 to pound;17,000. Local education authorities and education action zones can often cover part of the cost.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you