This is no Saturday morning workshop, no circus summer school. It is a Thursday in term time
Roll up for learning with a difference, where girls spin plates and boys juggle to the strains of gypsy music. Sounds like a circus? It is, but teachers at this school in Northern Ireland believe an acrobatic approach to the curriculum turns out a troupe of well-balanced pupils. David Newnham goes ringside
Something is happening in the school hall, but exactly what depends on where you are standing. A dozen girls are throwing themselves at a plastic-topped table. One after the other, and in near-perfect sync, they leap on to its shiny surface, slide this way and that on their stomachs, then somersault to the floor.
Here and there, boys juggle with coloured balls, while another lad wobbles up and down on a unicycle, taking care to avoid a pair of girls who are spinning plates on sticks. Somebody is beating the hell out of a drum kit.
Somewhere a piano tinkles. And from two large speakers in front of the stage comes the sound of a gypsy band.
Against such a cacophony, the electric bell stands little chance. Every 40 minutes it makes a token attempt to reimpose the harsh rhythm of the timetable. But here in the hall, today and every day this week, the bell is irrelevant - unheard or simply ignored.
To an observer, though, the bell is a reminder that there is nothing extracurricular about this extraordinary commotion. True, there's not an item of school uniform to be seen. But this is no Saturday morning workshop, no circus summer school. It is a Thursday in term time.
At Summerhill, A S Neill's mould-breaking academy on the Suffolk coast, the suspension of formal lessons and their replacement with a week of circus training might barely raise an eyebrow. But this is not Suffolk. This is Downpatrick, the county town of County Down, and this is Down high school, one of Northern Ireland's top grammars. And the school takes its academic reputation very seriously.
Most years Down high registers an A-level pass rate of around 99 per cent, and competition is fierce. "If you drop by 2 per cent you fall by 6 or 8 per cent down the rankings," says principal Jack Ferris. "Grammars take about 35 per cent of the population in the province, and our performance matches the best England can produce from its public schools."
So how does the pursuit of academic excellence square with giving 30 13-year-old students a week's break from formal lessons, hanging vast pictures of clowns from the roof of the hall and inviting a group of circus performers to take over the teaching for five days? There is, says Philip Orr, head of drama, no contradiction. "An academic grammar school need not be an exam factory," he says, and by way of proof, he points out that the three original members of the pop group Ash were educated at Down high, and even set up the band at the school while studying for their A-levels.
It was Mr Orr who first approached the Belfast Community Circus school and suggested its staff share their skills with Down students. For some years, Down high has been offering short residencies to a variety of artists. They have had a rap musician and a woman who did extraordinary things with wire.
So why not a circus week?
"Social performance, poise and dexterity - these enhance the academic rather than detract from it," says Mr Orr. And when he has a spare moment, he pops into the school hall to see that theory becomes practice, and practice makes perfect. Because for all the apparent chaos, some serious work is going on.
After just three days of training, students who last week could barely balance or tumble, let alone juggle and spin, are rehearsing a show to be performed before an audience of five to 10-year-olds from the attached prep school, as well as staff and parents. As they go through their paces, the drama teacher's co-conspirators in this bold enterprise - people such as head of art Ann McCluskey and head of English David Park, whose wife painted the clown hangings in her spare time - take a keen interest in the increasingly wild antics.
It was their enthusiasm that persuaded the circus artists to take what was, for them as well as the school, a step in the dark. Kathryn Montgomery, the circus school's outreach team leader, had taught community arts in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, and most of the group's experience had involved cross-community work in Belfast's sectarian flashpoints. But a top-notch grammar?
"We were nervous about going into the school," she says. "It was a new project for us. Something like this will work only if the teachers are 100 per cent behind it, and what struck me when Philip Orr and the other staff started talking about coming in for a week's residency was their faith in the pupils and in their own teaching abilities. They said, 'These young people will learn if the experience you give them is clear, structured and fun.' And fun was a big part of it, which was lovely to hear from such an academically strong school.
"But it's not just a week out of the classroom. The teachers are clear about how this will enhance their pupils' learning experience - not only this week, but for the rest of their school lives. It's an opportunity for them to become part of a working community that has objectives and targets.
Not only are they learning about what their bodies are capable of, but they are also developing a sense of self-responsibility."
With just four trainers on hand, and a limit to the amount of individual attention each participant can expect, the onus has been on students to hone their new-found skills and to share them with other members of the group. In addition, they have been giving lunchtime juggling tuition to first-form (Year 8) pupils.
"Skill sharing is a part of what keeps a circus going," says Ms Montgomery.
"Peer education is a buzzword right now and it works well in a circus because you are always having to push yourself to learn something new, which means you retain the ability to break down skills clearly, and passing on those skills to someone else comes naturally."
As she speaks, the table sliders take a break and form a human pyramid, demonstrating how such airy concepts as teamwork and trust have a habit of becoming hard as concrete in a circus context. "They are taking a risk here," says Ms Montgomery, and for a second it seems as if she is referring to the swaying tower of girls. But she means the residency. "Taking kids out of class for a week is bold," she says. "I knew about this school when I was a kid. I used to play them at hockey, and I often came here to see shows. Mine was a good school too, but everyone at Down high seemed to have more access to creative arts, and the teachers would always be trying new things. They seem to have a broader view of what's available. While they're academically strong, they seem to have recognised that they want to produce well-rounded students who are able to make choices."
With Northern Ireland's grammars under threat - the suspended assembly had promised to abolish the 11-plus, and Westminster's stated aim is to see that policy through - Down high, like all selective schools in the province, has had to think hard about its role.
Jack Ferris, a former rugby player turned teacher, concedes that the Burns report into post-primary education, and the flurry of surveys that came in its wake, cast considerable doubt on the future. "Everybody quotes the results that suit them," he says. "The survey of households showed more than 60 per cent in favour of selection, and a majority of teachers are in favour. But unions are strongly against, and a small survey of pupils also seemed to come out against.
"So you have two camps, and it's difficult to see them being reconciled. I believe there should be three ways. If you have a choice between grammar or secondary schools, immediately you have the idea of pass or failure. But if you have three routes as on the continent - academic, technical and vocational - you can't pass or fail three things. We need academic excellence. But education is also about the way you behave. That's the essence of the grammar school ethos in Northern Ireland."
He quotes the American behaviourist B F Skinner's line about education being "what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten", and talks about art ("you can see art everywhere in the school"), sport ("we'll match anybody at cricket"), and Down's commitment to the Duke of Edinburgh Award ("ours is the largest scheme in Northern Ireland - it gives young people a great deal of confidence"). And, of course, the circus.
"Taking 30 pupils out of class for a week's exposure to the circus experienceIit's situations like this that pupils remember from their school days.
"Our children are bright and catch up easily, and they are easy to work with. But we have some exceptional teachers who inspire children. They transform them into young people who have a glint in their eye when they talk to you. And that's self-perpetuating."
Next day, the principal is in the hall, clapping his big rugby player's hands as the third-form troupe show what they can do. Did they really learn all this in five short days? It's incredible what children can achieve when they've a mind to. And that glint in Mr Ferris's eye is unmistakable.
For more information about Belfast Community Circus, call 028 90236007; email firstname.lastname@example.org, orvisit www.belfastcircus.org