A new way of delivering the message can make all the difference when students are faced with career decisions. Robert Bullard reports
Vicky Pollard has not done her homework, and has a mouthful of excuses to explain why; wheelchair-bound Andy is his usual cocky self and thinks he knows all there is to learn. No surprises there, but surprising perhaps to find two characters from TV's Little Britain being used to entertain Year 9-11 students about their career choices.
"Children don't always know what to base their career decisions on," says Michael Gilbert, a Connexions adviser in Staffordshire, "and this show gives them a non-aggressive and friendly way of finding out."
Two hundred Year 9-11 children from Rawlett Community Sports College, Tamworth, have been laughing loud at a drama workshop called Stay in Learning, a show which introduces children to post-GCSE options. For most of the children, the messages are not new, and are already being repeated on a regular basis, but because the delivery is unconventional and does not involve teachers or career advisers, they find a receptive audience and earn wide praise.
"You remember things when they are acted out in front of you," says Year 10 student, Jackson Green. "It was really funny - the impersonations were great," says Danielle Taylor, who wants to study drama after leaving school.
Stay in Learning is one of several workshops produced by the theatre company ImpAct on Learning, which uses drama to help schools deliver messages that will motivate and challenge students. Around 600 performances of the careers workshop are delivered every year - as well as similar numbers on other topics, such as work experience, antisocial behaviour and travelling to school.
The productions are paid for by the schools or by the local Connexions service. "The show relaxes the children into learning," says Sarah Ashford, one of the tour group's three members, all of whom are not long out of college and are well able to relate to the children's' situation.
"Hopefully they laugh so much that they don't realise they're learning."
The 45-minute production - preceded by a Mexican wave to loosen everyone up - starts with three school leavers boasting about their playground dreams.
One wants to travel the world, another wants to build cars and the third wants to spend his life watching Robbie Williams concerts... but none of them knows where the money will come from. Step forward characters from Little Britain, Doctor Who and elsewhere, with the help of whom the three become aware of their strengths and which career ladder to climb on.
In fixing the mechanical problems of a friendly "darlek", Zoe discovers her practical skills, and that plenty of jobs have learning opportunities that won't require her to spend any more time in the classroom. Bill, in contrast, is theoretically inclined, and privately admits to quite liking exams - or at least once the revision is over. Tom, meanwhile, is a mixture of the other two, and has to overturn his dad's misconceptions about him doing an apprenticeship... "You do get paid, and a recognised qualification."
Even the uncomfortable "what if" questions are answered, such as when you don't get the grades. "No learning is ever wasted," comes the positive reassurance. "Use whatever you have as a starting point - what matters is the use that you make of your qualifications."
For those who need them, Catwoman and Batman are on hand, as Connexions personal advisers, offering their mantra of "able to help with bullying, health and housing issues; providing guidance, support, advice and information."
The only time the audience falls quiet is when an employer tries to choose between two similarly qualified job applicants and the children listen in for tips. One candidate admits at interview to being "not bovvered" by the job, while the other uses her hobbies and summer's work experience to demonstrate she has practical skills as well as the paper qualifications.
Finally, in a mock episode of The X Factor, the children scream in support of their favourite celebrities as they are pitted against each another, through which they learn the exchange rate between NVQs, GCSEs, A-levels and degrees. This brings out the play's final messages: "The more you learn the more you earn", and "It's your choice, your career, your life."
"It was a good production," says headteacher John Brodie. "It gave a strong message that the children should keep their options open, and think about their learning styles and choose what's appropriate to them."
"It's the same information as they would hear from a Connexions adviser or a teacher," adds Greg Hull, another of the performers, "but gives them a visual way of remembering it."
* ImpAct on Learning, Hope Bank House, Woodhead Road, Honley, West Yorkshire HD9 6PF
Tel: 01484 660077 www.impactonlearning.com