Rock Challengers create their own 'natural high'

8th April 2011 at 01:00
Dance and drama spectacular inspires pupils towards cleaner living. Jean McLeish reports

Most of their teachers would run a mile at the thought of performing in front of 2,000 people. But the pupils from Peterhead Academy are in their element.

This is Rock Challenge, a dance, drama and design spectacular that is giving pupils across the country a natural high, diverting them from drink, drugs and cigarettes.

It's more than 10 years since Peterhead Academy joined Rock Challenge and it's the only Scottish school competing at the top level of this UK competition.

Last month, the school showcased its entry for the final at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, along with another eight competing schools. Their eight-minute production is slick and professional, with stunning make up and costumes - the 60 performers are pulling out all the stops for the Premier category of the Northern Finals at Grimsby in June.

These pupils get so much out of this that they even come back to help after they've left school. And the support in the community is so strong that parents continue to help once their children have left school. Pupils are involved from S1 through to S6 and, as well as performing on stage, they can work with the stage crew, help with choreography, costumes, hair and make-up.

Physics teacher Emma Marshall runs Rock Challenge at the school as an extra-curricular activity with support from colleagues. "The pupils have to commit to come to rehearsals every week. We get them to sign a contract at the beginning of the year as well, saying they are going to try and avoid drink, drugs and alcohol," says Miss Marshall.

"That's the big message that Rock Challenge is trying to promote - that these kids are getting a natural, drug-free high from performing on stage and from taking part in this activity, so they're not having to go out and take drugs and drink and smoke."

Emma started teaching eight years ago and has been involved with Rock Challenge for the past seven years. The school works closely with local police and health professionals looking at reinforcing positive messages to pupils about drug and alcohol awareness.

Grampian Police also plays a major role, hosting the performance in Aberdeen and helping the school to source funding to help with staging and travel costs.

"Our pupils aren't perfect - some of them will drink, some of them will smoke - but what we're trying to do is cut down on what they are doing and try to encourage them," says Miss Marshall.

It's not only about abstinence, though. "Peterhead is known for its big hair, big make-up, big costumes," she says.

The styling is a bit lower key than usual this year for a sequence she describes as "Romeo and Juliet set in a mental asylum".

"It's such fun," says 15-year-old Eve Campbell. "It's so busy and you get to meet people from heaps of schools. In my first year, we were the only Scottish school."

Pupils work on the choreography themselves, with support from former pupil Stuart Cameron, 23.

"It's effective because it shows the kids they're not just hanging around the streets. There is something else they can get involved with," says Stuart, who had a dream that inspired the Romeo and Juliet theme for this year's performance.

"The dance can be anything you want. Some schools do hip hop or street - some schools do ballet. There's no limit - just your imagination," he says.

Twelve-year-old Callum Anderson (S1) is one of the youngest taking part: "I like drama and dancing and music. This is really fun," he says as the music strikes up and the dancers work through their routine.

Seventeen-year-old Fiona McLachlan is in S6 and will head off to study medicine at Edinburgh University after this year's final this summer. She started in her second year.

"It's such a buzz on stage and it's so much fun. They call it the natural high - it's just a good buzz. It has a good effect on people and it shows them there are other ways you can have fun," says Fiona.

Fifteen-year old Marc Culley is one of only three boys on stage: "Some folk slag me a little, but my pals came to watch me in Aberdeen and they were chuffed to bits I was on stage in front of everybody."


Rock Challenge has had a lasting effect on pupils at Peterhead Academy, according to headteacher Susan Ramsden. Taking part develops leadership and team working and fosters good relationships within the community.

"We find pupils go on to use these leadership skills to mentor pupils, coming to the school as prefects, sports leaders and buddies," says Mrs Ramsden.

"One ex-pupil is working with the Active Schools co-ordinator to establish an extra-curricular group for P6-S2 pupils, where children can develop performance skills and the lifestyle choices of Rock Challenge."

As well as Aberdeen, there are plans for Rock Challenges across Scotland.


- 340 UK schools took part in Rock Challenge last year;

- 12,000-plus youngsters responded to an anonymous questionnaire about behaviour;

- 12 per cent said they had smoked before they became involved with Rock Challenge; 56 per cent of those said they had stopped or cut down due to their involvement;

- 20 per cent of the students said they drank at least once a week before Rock Challenge; 63 per cent had stopped or cut back since doing it;

- 4 per cent of youngsters said they had used drugs before Rock Challenge; 60 per cent of them had stopped or reduced their drug usage;

- 22 per cent of the pupils had played truant; 55 per cent had stopped because of Rock Challenge;

- 92 per cent of the children said their self-esteem had improved and admitted they enjoyed school more.

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