Teaching is a juggling act - we all know that. But one school is giving the maxim a more literal meaning, reports Steven Hastings
Not many RE teachers keep a cupboard full of knives at the back of their classroom. Nor do they usually have a unicycle tucked under their desk. But Tony Parkes, of Sandon high school in Stoke-on-Trent, has a stash of colourful equipment that would put a circus school to shame.
Every Friday morning the knives are out - with the balls, hoops, clubs and unicycle - as Tony takes a break from theological matters to take a double lesson of juggling skills.
It's one of the more unusual contributions to Sandon's "enrichment programme", which offers pupils in Years 10 and 11 the chance to try their hands at something new, choosing from a variety of termly modules. Some are sporting activities not commonly seen on the timetable, such as golf or skiing. Others are more practical, including plumbing and engineering. But juggling?
"If a member of staff has an interest or passion then I want them to teach it," explains deputy head Chris Rutter. "I want them to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm. It's no great secret that if you enjoy something yourself, then you will make a better job of teaching it to others. We've had everything from ballroom dancing to beekeeping."
Juggling is the most popular. Chris Rutter insists that the school is not just sacrificing valuable classroom time to teach party tricks. The lessons may be fun, but the emphasis is on learning transferable skills. The pupils themselves are in no doubt as to the benefits.
"Teachers used to have me down as a troublemaker, but I just got distracted easily," explains Carl from Year 11. "You can't get distracted when you're juggling or you drop everything. I've learned to stay focused. Now in lessons I find I can concentrate on what the teachers are saying - even if it's boring."
David, another Year 11 student, claims juggling has taught him the value of perseverance. "With juggling it's impossible to do something straight off. You have to try it over and over again. If you're patient enough you get it in the end, but you won't succeed if you get frustrated. I try to remember that when I'm struggling with a new idea in maths or science."
Tony Parkes says the pupils are "discovering how the learning process works. You have to remember that for many of them this is the first new skill they will have learned since starting to read at primary school."
Learning to read the flight of the balls is sold to parents and pupils as the equal of any other classroom subject, and not just "a bit of a laugh". To that end Tony Parkes has drawn up a juggling curriculum with clear aims and objectives. A series of certificates gives pupils a chance to measure their progress.
It's a grey and rainy day in the Potteries, but inside the school hall there's a colourful display of flashing blades, cascading balls and spiralling hoops. Pupils perform in pairs or practise on their own. One girl juggles a stream of balls while wobbling across the room on a unicycle. What is most noticeable is the encouragement they offer each other and the shared excitement when someone pulls off a new trick.
"The great thing about juggling is that it's a whole new skill. Being good at French or football doesn't help," says Tony Parkes. "It means different people get a chance to shine. It is good for high-fliers to try something which will challenge them - everyone who juggles learns what it's like to fail."
In his role a head of RE, Parkes has made a great effort to integrate juggling into his everyday teaching. Indeed, all staff at Sandon are encouraged to use their alternative skills outside the Friday module and to look for innovative approaches.
"I might start a lesson with a few minutes' juggling, particularly if the class is in a boisterous mood," he says. "It quietens them down. But I can also use it to illustrate ideas in the curriculum. Juggling has a meditative effect - it's about the interplay between body, mind and spirit."
The benefits are not just for pupils. Being seen by the students as well-rounded human beings with a life outside school helps many staff develop better relationships in their classrooms.
Chris Rutter tells the story of a colleague who was not enjoying teaching; one class in particular was proving difficult. The school gave him the usual support in terms of observation and advice, but the breakthrough came with the discovery that the teacher was master of a nifty range of card tricks. "We sat down together and looked at ways he could incorporate some tricks into the lessons he had planned for the coming weeks. Soon the most challenging pupils were lingering behind after lessons, asking if he would teach them a new trick. The whole atmosphere changed."
The Friday "enrichment" lessons offer the time to explore more personal concerns which would otherwise be crowded out by GCSE demands.
One teacher, a mother, set up child-care lessons. She encouraged nearby parents, many of them single mothers, to bring their infants into school and leave them in a "cr che" for a double lesson.
"Our pupils learned an important skill in handling children," says Chris Rutter. "But, just as importantly, they also began to realise that this member of staff had a life as a mother outside the classroom, a life that demanded a great deal of expertise and knowledge."
Staff enjoy the opportunity to share their passions, free of exam constraints, and see Friday mornings as something to look forward to.
"It's very liberating and enjoyable," says Peter Scragg, whose own module looks at films and the way they present history. "We watch films like Braveheart and Schindler's List, which are films I enjoy, but which raise serious points about the way Hollywood can twist historical facts."
When Chris Rutter introduced the concept of enrichment lessons six years ago, he admits the idea was greeted with suspicion and raised eyebrows by parents anxious for their children to sneak in an extra GCSE.
"I felt like a second-hand car salesman trying to flog a dodgy motor," he laughs. "But I don't have to justify myself anymore. Parents are always telling me that Friday is the one morning they don't have to drag their kids out of bed."
Ofsted was also sceptical - after all, here was a sizeable chunk of the timetable where, apparently, the national curriculum was not being upheld.
"The inspectors stayed an extra day, specifically to see the Friday module in action. They were surprised and impressed. They realised that whether it is juggling or bee-keeping, learning is still central," says Chris Rutter.
Learning to juggle can also be a career move. Tony Parkes has met former pupils who have juggled their way into summer jobs at Alton Towers. The girl on the unicycle has just launched her performing career with a part in Barnum. "It's not just IT skills which set you up for the future," he says. "If you find something new you enjoy, you never know where it might take you."