High scoring performers

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Fame may be the name of the game at stage schools, but Sylvia Young's pupils know that good GCSE results are just as important. Irena Barker reports

If you're prone to these things, it's hard not to get just a tiny bit star-struck on a visit to the legendary Sylvia Young Theatre School in London's Marylebone.

Jemma McKenzie-Brown, one of the school's pupils, has just hit the big time, winning the role of Tiara, the new girl in the film High School Musical 3. Consequently, the school's admin office is a hive of excitement as she tries on a sumptuous frock for its London premiere.

Sylvia Young is clearly delighted, but she points out that this moment of glamour is far from a daily occurrence. "We don't normally get this involved," she says, as staff coo enthusiastically over the outfit. Stage school life is not just the glitz of Hollywood and the West End, Sylvia says.

It's about commitment, application, and above all, plenty of academic homework that not even the biggest child star can escape. "We're not one of those independent schools that is giving up homework - certainly not," she adds.

This is one of a handful of full-time independent stage schools that offers a full academic curriculum, alongside intensive lessons in dance, drama and singing.

They are generally very small schools, but the GCSE results and inspection reports of the majority show they punch above their weight academically considering they select largely on the basis of artistic potential.

At Sylvia Young, pupils spend the first three days of the week studying mainstream curriculum subjects. They wear a classic black blazer, striped tie and red jumper, and look much like the pupils of any private school. When break time comes, the narrow corridors are alive with young voices, expressing ordinary teenage concerns.

But on Thursdays and Fridays, pupils slip into grey T-shirts, black trousers and dance shoes, and the school is transformed. Soundtracks from musicals blast out of CD players and impossibly tiny girls belt out the songs from Oliver! at an improbable volume in the library.

Two dozen youngsters leap around a mirrored room performing an almost perfect "Food Glorious Food" song-and-dance routine. Pupils are gently chastised by the teacher for not remembering the lyrics before they jerk back into a series of impossibly complicated dance steps.

The balancing act for Sylvia Young and similar theatre schools is not an easy one. They have the highest hopes for their pupils to get professional work and take up full-time careers in performing arts. But they also understand the unpredictable nature of show business, and the disappointments it can bring to even the most well-trained and talented. So they know it is important to make pupils understand the necessity of having good GCSEs.

But can children really concentrate on algebra after the excitement of a Billy Elliot audition? And what if they miss school because they're starring in an advert?

Stage school children are often stereotyped as "brats", so who would want to teach children whose real interests lie far outside the drab confines of academe?

According to the staff at Sylvia Young, these prejudices are unfounded and teaching at a stage school can be extremely fulfilling.

Darren Smyth, deputy head and maths teacher, came to the school a year ago and, unlike most of the teaching staff who put in three days a week, he works full-time.

"I wasn't thinking about it being a theatre school at all. I wasn't sure what I would see or what to expect, he says. "It was a perfect career opportunity. A different role, running a department and exams."

He was pleasantly surprised by the demeanour of his pupils. "They are not at all `stagey'. They are friendly and confident, they know who you are and ask how your day or weekend was. They appreciate teachers are people because the school is small, with a community atmosphere." He says the pupils have the confidence and skills to deliver and present as a result of their performance work, but they are not over confident.

Sylvia Young gets 400 requests for entrance auditions every year, but has only 28 places in a year group and a total of 160 in the school.

Darren says, "They have fought hard to be here and feel lucky and appreciate the opportunity they have." He says he doesn't get involved in the stage side of the school at all. The school prefers academic teachers without a special desire to be involved in the performing arts because they might feel dissatisfied by their academic roles.

Paula Sanders, an art teacher, has taught at the school for 16 years. She joined because the part-time hours fitted in with her own art projects, but she also enjoys the small-school atmosphere and the particular abilities of her pupils.

"They are able to abstract emotional ideas and are quite articulate about them," she says. "They aren't shy, and respond well to paintings. It could be to do with being in role and character and the power of emotions; they are open to all that."

Frances Chave, the "academic" headteacher (Sylvia Young is principal) has been at the school for three years, but she had reservations about the job at first.

"I thought pupils wouldn't be interested in the academic side. I wondered whether it would be a priority.

"But we find the vocational side has a knock-on effect on their achievement, drive and motivation. Pupils have to have a lot of self- discipline. It's a long school day, with all the usual pressures.

"There's no friction between the children because they are taught from the first day that we don't make a big thing of any auditions or parts."

But the school does face special challenges. Darren says many classes will have two or three absent pupils each day, due to them having one-off acting jobs such as adverts and voiceovers, or longer projects such as starring in soaps.

To deal with this, there is a system to stop pupils getting behind with work. If they have missed a few days, they are issued with photocopied lesson plans and it is up to them to catch up in their spare time.

If the child is doing long-term work, such as Jamie Borthwick who plays Jay Brown, the street-smart teenager, in EastEnders - tutors are sent on set and liaise closely with the school. And if the pupil is deemed to be getting dangerously behind, they risk the ultimate sanction - being taken off the books of the in-house talent agency.

The school's GCSE results are a testament to these policies. Last year, 82 per cent of its Year 11 students achieved five A* to C passes at GCSE, including English and maths, and 100 per cent of Year 11s achieved seven or more good passes.

Of course, the school plays to its strengths, with pupils taking GCSEs in music, expressive arts and drama, alongside English language and literature, maths, core and additional science and art.

Other subjects offered in a 16-and-a-half-hour academic week include humanities, ICT, Spanish and PSHE. There is no PE on the curriculum, but dance classes are intensely sweaty affairs that provide more than enough exercise to stave off childhood obesity.

At 16, pupils take a variety of routes: this year, 15 went on to do A- levels elsewhere, 10 to dance colleges and three started working professionally. "But we've had people go off and do other things," says Sylvia. "The majority of full-timers are pretty serious about show business and their parents are behind them. But we do have former students who are solicitors, doctors and journalists.

"They have lost nothing by coming here. They achieve confidence, communication skills and they interview very well. It's the basics of any future career."


Sylvia Young is just one of a host of stage schools that perform well academically as well as on stage. How do mainstream teachers sustain interest?

- At Redroofs School, which caters for 70 nine to 16-year-olds in Maidenhead, Berkshire, the pupils study academic and vocational work throughout the week, alternating half days of each. The lunchbreak is just 30 minutes, to cram in nine GCSE subjects alongside lessons in ballet, tap, modern jazz, musical theatre and singing. "If you encourage them to do the things they love to do, it will encourage them in other areas," says Samantha Keston, the co-owner.

- At Susi Earnshaw Theatre School in Barnet, north London, Delyth Owen, a maths teacher, gets involved backstage at the school's theatrical and musical productions. "Most pupils see the importance of my subject, but if they ask, I try to tell them how Pythagoras' theorem could be useful in choreography or staging."

- Allan North, a geography teacher at Pattison College in Coventry, plays to the dramatic strengths of his pupils, who follow a personalised timetable of performance and academic work. "Pupils here never shy away from role plays, so I try to play to that in my teaching."

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