Act cool

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Confidence can be the difference between success and failure in any walk of life. A fly-on-the-wall TV series starting next week shows just how the shy and diffident can be taught to walk tall - using techniques honed in school workshops. Reva Klein reports

Maria's got a problem. She's bright and vivacious, but whenever she has to give a talk - which she often has to do in her work for the charity Victim Support - she loses her confidence.

Nigel's got the same problem. A successful head chef for Raymond Blanc, he's having a crisis because he's been offered the chance of running another prestigious restaurant. The thought of taking on a managerial role scares the tripe out of him.

Maria and Nigel are two of a dozen people selected to take part in an intensive, week-long programme designed to boost their confidence. How they get on will be revealed in a six-part, fly-on-the-wall television series, Confidence Lab, which starts on BBC2 next week.

The man behind the series is a former actor who perfected his approach while touring schools with workshops designed to boost pupils' and teachers' confidence. From running a communication skills training consultancy for business with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Roy Leighton now tours Northamptonshire schools with two other actors, one of them a former special needs teacher.

It's not, Roy Leighton insists, one of those hit-and-run operations that presents a workshop then scarpers. Four years in development, the programme is based on discussions and brainstorming sessions with teachers and pupils to discover their most pressing concerns. The team devised a soap opera as the basis for an interactive theatre piece that involves the pupils as much or as little as they want.

Mr Leighton and his team work with Year 9 and 10 pupils and their teachers in eight schools in Northamptonshire and elsewhere as part of the Raising Standards project, a collaboration between the local education authority, the Chamber of Commerce, and Weetabix, which is based in Kettering.

They visit the schools twice with a workshop over a period of four weeks and, a few months later, meet again with teachers' representatives to look at how the work has been sustained and how to develop it further.

The aim, says Mr Leighton, is two-pronged: working with teachers to help them get the best out of their pupils and "getting children to recognise their own genius by learning what their learning paths are and then helping them develop six basic skills: motivation, determination, bravery, self belief, creativity and energy". It might sound a bit vague, but in practice it's a fusion of sound pedagogic approaches such as theatre in education, accelerated learning and emotional literacy.

At Kingsbrook secondary school, outside Milton Keynes, the three actors are working with a bouncy group of Year 9s. In the group is a boy who makes clear from the beginning that he wants nothing to do with the next 90 minutes. By the end of the session, he is practically levitating off his chair with excitement at having contributed to the discussion and the interactive theatre piece, which allows pupils to "direct" the action as they see fit. He has been using creative skills that don't fit into the conventional curriculum and is clearly delighted at the feedback those skills are attracting.

The plot of the theatre piece is familiar to all TV soap fans. Ray is a Year 10 student who has more than his share of problems. His mother is on her own with two younger children, depressed and dependent on him for helping arond the house, expecting him to stay off school if she needs him to. He's got caught up with Jimmy, a dodgy guy into dodgy things. As if that isn't enough, his 14-year-old girlfriend, Sophie, has just told him she's pregnant.

Oh, and he's in trouble at school because he's always late and, when pressed, lippy into the bargain.

The two sessions give pupils the chance to work out how Ray can deal with his difficulties. This forces them to assess their own values and communicate them in ways that many pupils will have never done before.

Being able to direct the play, telling the characters what to say and how to say it better than the first time around is tremendously beneficial for pupils - particularly those whose voices aren't usually heard in class. One boy pipes up in a discussion of the scene in which Ray goes ballistic when Sophie gives him the unhappy news: "He's only 14. He should've kept his organs to himself in the first place."

Teachers follow the same basic session, working with the actors to develop strategies for their pupil groups. Exercises are designed to be used by any teacher, whether they've had drama training or not.

In the television series, we see Maria, Nigel and the others receiving not only training from Roy Leighton but advice from a psychiatrist, business psychologist, body language expert, salsa coach, sports "motivator" and voice coach. The idea is to give each participant a head-to-toe makeover that enables them to exude confidence, from the way they move to the way they project their voices. As well as the individual consultations, the experts observe them on hidden cameras, studying their "Roomcam" disclosures. The result is a combination of the compelling fly-on-the-wall format of Big Brother and the dubious charms of Home Front, with a pinch of Oprah thrown in for good measure.

We see Nigel, a quiet, diffident man, being shown how to smile winningly, how to look assertively at someone (right eye to left eye, then down to the mouth, apparently), how to use his voice and body and how to create a positive mindset, all of which project the managerial image he's so worried about being unable to achieve. The more communicative Maria is engaging to watch as she yelps in frustration, laughs at herself and occasionally buries her head. At the end we see her a few months down the line giving a presentation to a room of scary, overwhelmingly male police officers, waiting for her with crossed arms. Before she did her training, she'd have been a quivering wreck. Now, she's confident and calm and we believe her when she tells us afterwards that she really enjoyed it. And, judging by the look on the faces of the appreciative policemen, so did they.

In conversations with the programme's resident psychiatrist, Maria and Nigel put their insecurities down to a single incident in their childhoods.

For Maria, it was being locked up with a pedantic father who wouldn't let her go until she recited her times tables. For Nigel, it was being humiliated by a teacher after having written an impassioned essay. Her only comment was to berate him for his spelling and handwriting.

Kingsbrook school's acting headteacher, Hilary Spurrier, says: "We have been working with Roy for four years, and our aim in this work is to ensure sustainability of his approach. All of the staff have done training with him, because we knew it was pointless otherwise. It has undoubtedly contributed to a culture change in this school over the past few years."

Confidence Lab starts on BBC2 next Wednesday, January 10, at 9.50pm

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