Thanks to a chemistry graduate, around 40 boys from a bleak Bristol estate have taken to dance classes like ducks to water - and their GCSE results are improving. Reva Klein finds out what's going on.
Mention to your average Bristolian that you want to go to Hartcliffe and they'll jokingly ask if you plan to go in an armoured van. Bad memories have a habit of dying hard and the scenes of rioting that erupted on the mean streets of this desolate estate back in 1992 are ensured a permanent place in the city's modern folklore.
Today, Hartcliffe is no less desolate-looking. Long-term unemployment continues, as does car vandalism. But for young people in the area, a kind of renaissance has occurred. Art, music, theatre and dance have entered their lives and, if Vic Ecclestone has anything to do with it, they will stay there for a long time to come.
Ecclestone (below right) is the ebullient, larger-than-life mastermind of the Hartcliffe Boys Dance Company, a six-year-old group that has opened up a new world to about 40 boys, who show up week after week to dance after school. As well as working with a professional choreographer, the lads, aged 11 to 16, have performed to school and public audiences in Bristol, France, Germany and Belgium (at the European Parliament, no less). In the process, their confidence has grown and their exam results have improved.
More recently, Vic Ecclestone, who has been head of special needs at Hartcliffe High School for 17 years, has created an arts charity that is bringing prestigious and innovative British and international companies and individuals to perform for and conduct workshops with some of Bristol's most disadvantaged young people.
Bristol local education authority has given him a two-year sabbatical to set up Multi A (the logo reads Multi Arts Multi Activities Adventurer Artisan Aspirant Anyone All of us Artist Actor...), to work with nearly 30 primary and secondary schools, extending arts and performance activities inside and outside school.
It's a grand and grandiose operation. "Every penny I've got has come from business sponsorship apart from small amounts from the LEA," says Vic Ecclestone, who was Education Extra's Teacher of Distinction in 1995, Disney Teacher of the Year in 1996 and a winner of Bristol and West's National Community Award. Two years ago, a local businessman (who insists on remaining anonymous) asked him if he'd like two years' paid work to extend what he was doing in Hartcliffe to other socially and economically disadvantaged areas of Bristol. Vic Ecclestone jumped at the opportunity, focusing his diverse talents on securing funding from other businesses, including Bristol and West Building Society. Together, this has amounted to a cool pound;100,000-a-year budget for Multi A.
"Businesses have not only been willing and supportive to us," says Vic Ecclestone, "they've shown that their thinking is ahead of mainstream education's. They understand that the arts and performance are powerful vehicles for delivering important core skills that young people need to succeed in the world of work."
To a large extent, the whole operation is down to Vic Ecclestone's determination, if not out-and-out bloody-mindedness. Although his first degree was in chemistry, he is evangelical about the necessity of arts in education. "We teach the arts because they're about being human. Combined, they develop creative imagination, the ability to think, and they encourage young people to become informed and responsible members of the community. When people have said Hartcliffe children wouldn't like cricket, or dance, or opera, I've started up a cricket club, set up the boys' dance group and I've had the Welsh National Opera in to do Macbeth workshops with them. The response has always been fantastic."
Increased access to the arts may also be helping students, especially boys, to do better in their GCSEs. Hartcliffe's figures for last year show a significantly narrower gap between girls' and boys' results than in previous years, as well as a decline in the number of boys not entering exams.
The lads in the dance group are in no doubt that dancing has helped them grow in all sorts of ways. Says Year 10 pupil David Harris, "I have a lot more confidence standing up and speaking in class and in groups. And when I write, I believe that what I feel is important, because Vic and some of the artists we've worked with listen to us and respect what we're saying."
Multi A can be contacted on 01179 14 7 745
WHAT MULTI A HAS BROUGHT TO BRISTOL SCHOOLS IN THE PAST YEAR
* The English Chamber Orchestra has held a teachers' workshop and has conducted introductory music classes in six schools.
* An artist from New York, Tim Rolins, has worked with Hartcliffe children on an art, literature, film, music and dance project on the theme of Prometheus.
* The English National Ballet has run workshops on "The Nutcracker" with six schools. Money was raised to enable 180 children to see the production in London.
* The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has run music workshops in seven junior schools on the theme of dinosaurs.
* Money was raised to take 500 children to London to see the National Theatre's production of "Oh What a Lovely War".
* Members of the Cathedral School Orchestra are to mentor musically talented children identified during the English Chamber Orchestra-Multi A programme.
* Seamus Heaney is giving a lecture and doing poetry workshops in a few schools in March.