Most teachers will do anything to stop pupils' attention wandering. But for Monica Troughton this is exactly what's required. In fact, the former drama teacher believes a little idling, dreaming and head massage can help pupils focus on exams, writes Wendy Wallace
A Year 11 group sits in a semi-circle under stage lighting. Monica Trou-ghton invites them to take off their shoes, stretch their legs and close their eyes. She puts on a tape of birdsong, sweet and distinct against the hum of traffic, and asks her pupils to tense and then relax their muscles, starting with their feet.
It's not the normal approach to preparing for GCSEs, but here at Trinity School, Leamington, it is proving to be a good one. These pupils are dressed in loose, comfortable sportsgear, the uniform of relaxation. And relaxation is what they need as, hormones pumping, they race towards the hurdles of public exams, whipped on by parents, teachers and visions of success or failure.
Monica, a former drama teacher, has evolved stress management sessions to tackle the problem. Now her soft voice is encouraging the group to feel the sunshine beating down on them.
Disbelief is suspended in this windowless hall. No one giggles as they are next asked to imagine themselves walking on the seabed, noticing the fish, seaweed and shells. One girl looks as if she's asleep. The others seem hypnotised, mouths slack, bodies motionless.
Monica is standing behind one pupil, massaging her shoulders, still talking, taking them further into this "guided imagery" session in which they are now discovering a "beautiful, white shipwreck". Two late arrivals threaten for a moment to break the spell but they behave in an appropriately churchy way and are soon absorbed among the assembled dreamers.
Now the pupils are opening a treasure chest and finding something "just for you". They proceed to the captain's cabin and find a letter. "Read the message that's there for you," says Monica.
The visualisation ends with her sitting in front of them, telling them they feel safe, healthy, awake and alert. Then they are asked to open their eyes, which most seem in no hurry to do. When they manage to bring themselves back to the prosaic reality of the school hall, they form pairs and give each other Indian head massage under Monica's instruction. "It's wonderful," says 16-year-old Jeff Alexander-Head. "It takes you away from all the stress. Even afterwards, for a couple of hours, it's completely gone from your mind."
Her massage partner Tami Chin, also 16 and planning to study law, says:
"You need something to help you at this time and this is perfect. I always have silly messages - 'you'll be taught how to fly', and things like that. I guess it comes from deep. I guess it's telling me everything will be all right."
For Paul Dempsey, head of Year 11 in this 1,300-pupil Catholic comprehensive, the stress management sessions are a valuable adjunct to other forms of preparation for exams. "I felt we covered the academic side - revision and study skills - very well but we didn't cover the pastoral side of it," he says. "We're preparing them for their own version of the Olympics and I wanted them to find some way of being able to relax and lessen the stress."
All Year 11 pupils will have at least one session with Monica before exam leave begins . Stress management offers something to everybody, Paul believes. "If a child's got problems he or she tends to make it known through behaviour. We're always looking at the noisy ones, but that huge bulk of quiet, conscientious kids can get ignored. I felt they needed attention as well."
Trinity School prides itself on its approach to the whole pupil. Staff and students are on first name terms, and the Catholic ethos permeates relationships, says Paul. "We're very concerned with the dignity and self-esteem of the individual. And the idea of meditative and contemplative prayer is a fundamental in Catholicism."
But Monica's work though is strictly secular. She is very aware of the taboo nature of both touch and spirituality in schools, and has developed her stress management work over several years, treading softly round pupil, parent and school sensibilities.
"I didn't want to offend any parents. I don't want them to feel I'm getting psychological, or prying. I don't need to know what the kids' problems are. But I think it's vitally important that we start to connect with each other. We can communicate around the world, instantly, but at home we often can't communicate with the people we live with."
Touch is limited to the head and shoulders, and Year 11 appear quite comfortable with it, with some same-sex and some mixed sex pairs. It's surprising to see these boys gently working on each other's necks.
Monica began developing her techniques as head of drama in an inner city school in Coventry. She took to starting every lesson with a short spell of head and shoulder massage. GCSE passes rocketed to 98 per cent grades A-C.
"I'm sure it was because they were calm and focused," she says. "I never have to tell anybody off through these sessions. Even the most difficult student becomes calm, in control and at ease when involved with this type of work."
She is now writing a book about the techniques, and hopes to begin training staff groups to use the methods in more schools.
Marcia Watson, head of 10 at Trinity, plans to give her pupils sessions with Monica next autumn. She says: "We've got kids here who are on anti-depressants because they just can't cope, they're working so hard. It's vital they learn to de-stress themselves. And with this you can say 'forget the drugs, forget the alcohol. This is something you can do which is safe and has a beneficial effect'."
Later in the afternoon Monica is working with a Year 8 group in the lower school. This is more of a challenge - the room has a noisy echo, most of the pupils are boys and it is close to the end of the day. Some have never done "this weird stuff" before. But when she asks them to lay their heads on their forearms, they all do. Even me. Ten minutes later, despite hooting from the car park, drilling from the corridor, shouts from the playground and the possible opprobrium of Year 8, I can barely pick up my pen when Monica tells the group to slowly open their eyes.
The kids can't wait to report what presents they found for themselves in their mental journey - a golden locket, a python, a feather, a key. "We always love having Monica," says Cassie Thompson, 13. "It gets you feeling good and ready to work."
Monica Troughton can be contacted at The Stables, The Grange, Farnborough, Oxon OX17 1EA. Tel: 01295 690800