Carolyn O'Grady discovers how the arts of the big top are helping a group of teenage boys develop important social skills. It seems an ordinary church hall in the heart of Belfast, but on a few evenings a week it's the site of some extraordinary feats: unicycling, juggling, clowning with hats and walking on stilts. These are the evenings when the boys of St Patrick's Training School have their own circus workshops, a unique project in which they learn the arts of the big top and acquire social skills in the process.
St Patrick's is a residential institution for boys aged between 10 and 17, most are under care and control orders; the rest have been committed for minor offences. Many have been declared beyond parental control, have been persistent truants or have other school-related problems. Some have been abused or neglected. A number have used drugs or solvents.
In 1991 the boys were given their own circus school, called Circus 1 to 3 because Training School Orders used to be made for between one and three years. The move was prompted by improvements in the behaviour of a few boys who had attended workshops at the Belfast Community Circus a "new circus" group for professional performers, amateurs and beginners, including children, which puts its entire emphasis on human skills (there are no animal acts).
Soon after Circus 1 to 3 was founded an evaluation was commissioned from the Adolescent Psychology and Research Unit funded by the Northern Ireland Office.
Its findings confirmed that the boys were acquiring a high level of skill in circus arts and enjoyed what they were doing. But, more importantly, they were also showing better self-control, listening skills, teamwork and co-operation. The group as a whole appeared less impulsive and more self-controlled. As impulsivity is usually a key indicator for anti-social and delinquent behaviour this was a crucial finding.
"It does appear to provide a framework within which many boys can develop not only circus skills but also personal and social skills," say Orla Muldoon and Rosemary Kilpatrick, psychologists at Queen's University, Belfast in an evaluation of the project, finished last month. "There was no question that it improves the quality of life of the participants."
Circus 1 to 3 now receives funding from bodies including the Northern Ireland Office and Making Belfast Work, the Princes Trust and BBC Children in Need. Last month the project heard it will get money from the National Lottery.
At the heart of the project are three evening circus workshops. One is for 15 boys from St Patrick's. One is for 10 boys from the West Side project, a scheme run by North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust and St Patrick's offering intensive support to boys in the community - essentially "it is an effort to keep them out of St Pats," says Liam Dumigan, principal social worker at the school. The third is a specialist aerial and gymnastics workshop.
On the night I visited 10 boys attended, aged from 10 to 17, with Kathryn Montgomery, the project's development worker, and three freelance tutors from Belfast Community Circus who are paid a fee for each session and have special training in working with difficult young people and in child protection issues and procedures. Three St Patrick's staff also attended. This high adult:pupil ratio ensures safety and means the boys can receive a great deal of attention.
The evening began with a fast warm-up session of team games followed by a discussion on events coming up and on the rules to govern behaviour. Then the boys practised their juggling, unicycling, diablo and other skills, either setting their own targets or following the project's own skills accreditation scheme in which participants are awarded certificates for reaching set levels in chosen skills.
"We don't patronise them," says Kathryn Montgomery. "Most people can get to level one. But level two is an achievement. They have to exercise self-discipline, use a lot of patience and to trust other people. They are marked by a tutor who has a high skills level in that area."
Skill levels vary considerably, but the atmosphere was co-operative rather than competitive. Tonight Kevin, a regular participant, moves from stilt-walking to balancing on the rolling globe (a large heavy yellow ball) and unicycling with effortless competence. But it is also notable that he spends a great deal of time helping Mark, a 10-year old who is going from skill to skill with high octane energy and kamikaze abandon. At one point Kevin holds him by a strap while he succeeds in balancing on the globe.
The evaluations confirm that co-operation is seen as important. "You can't go into Circus School with a bad attitude 'cos you're going to ruin everybody else's fun," as one boy put it.
Throughout the session the boys' behaviour and attitude is noted by the tutors. A record is kept of how they do on a scale of one to 10 in five areas: team-work, communication, participation, attitudebehaviour and manners and the information is used to decide which boys are allowed to participate in outside performances and workshops.
Recent evaluation found that the boys appreciated both the skills accreditation and tutor ratings and judged the marks both useful and accurate. "You can't just keep carrying on . . . you have to wise up to yourself," said one.
This combination of physical skills, firmness and access to the community appears extremely potent and life-changing for some. Colm Murdock, an ex-St Patrick's boy, now 18, has been with Circus 1 to 3 from early on and now tutors at the workshops. Circus 1 to 3 has changed his "whole lifestyle", he says. It's not that he wants to be a circus performer - in fact, he has just begun a course in childcare and hopes to be a social worker - but he loves the circus and particularly the unicycle, at which he has become adept. "At first it all seemed pretty stupid - nobody knew what circus was. But it was an escape from St Pat's, so I went anyway. Then I got hooked and my problems seemed to drift away.
"I made it really difficult for myself at first. I was resentful and shy and I had a very short fuse. I was always fighting with someone. If anyone looked at me in the wrong way I'd react. I had no talking skills. The tutors said, 'If you want to stick around you've got to calm down, you've got to listen, ' and I did." For him, the tutors became role models, and he notices the same thing happening with the other boys.
Circus 1 to 3 participates in community workshops at which they teach and demonstrate skills that demand a great deal of patience and self control; they have given over 30 public performances and been the subject of a BBC documentary Hard Act.
Further information: Kathryn Montgomery, Westside Project, 471 Falls Road, Belfast BT12 6DD. Tel: 01232 239069, fax: 01232 241970