Spot the next Billy or Charlotte

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Your school could be nurturing a budding ballet star or an opera diva. But how do you recognise their potential? Nicola Porter reports on one method being tried successfully by teachers in Wales

another billy Elliot could rise to ballet stardom from 120-pupil Llanharan primary school. Or perhaps another Charlotte Church or Monty Don, of TV gardening fame, could be in the making.

According to Simon Phillips, head of the Rhondda Cynon Taf school, Billy made it all the way from a pit village to nationwide ballet fame because of a chance encounter with a dance teacher.

"How much talent do we lose because children were never given the opportunity to try something their parents, or they, would never dream of doing?" he asks.

So for the past year children at the school have been encouraged to find their niche, be it as a prima ballerina, opera singer, or gardener.

For Mr Phillips the younger that pupils are exposed to new potential career opportunities, the better.

The head became convinced about the value of education-business partnerships (EBPs) after attending a one-off training day. In December, he was asked to talk about the secrets of his success to an audience from across the UK at the national EBP conference.

Mr Phillips started by encouraging his staff to spend one day working with businesses that had nothing to do with teaching.

Links were made with the Welsh National Opera and Independent Ballet Wales after teaching staff spent a day with the arts organisations. Dancers and singers then gave pupils a taste of their work on stage. But as not all pupils can be expected to make it in showbusiness, the school has also offered chances to explore a range of potential careers, including working for the Forestry Commission or McDonald's.

Teachers also went on courses with the National Botanic Gardens of Wales to help them to become better gardeners. The children now have their own vegetable patch, nurture chickens and plant trees. Other opportunities planned include a visit to a local housing development and a factory making hair and beauty products.

Cardiff Blues and Cardiff City football club have also given free rugby and football sessions for the more sporty pupils. Mr Phillips claims making EBPs has enriched the curriculum, enthused pupils and broadened expectations. It has also seen perceptions changing, as feedback from the children proves.

Dylan, aged 7, who would never have considered ballet previously, said:

"I'd like to be a ballet dancer now." And after a session with the Welsh National Opera, 9-year-old Joshua said: "I thought that all composers would be old and wear a bow tie but they were young and wore jeans."

After her work in the school garden, Bethan, aged 8, said: "I loved making the bird bow with Ian. I've never used a drill before."

The school's commitment to finding the right career for the right pupil has won it praise from the Assembly Government's vocational skills champion, Peter McGowan.

But it is not all about finding fame and fortune, says Mr Phillips.

"This is about encouraging the children to try a range of career opportunities to see where their talents lie. Some of the pupils, especially the boys, may never have been able to try ballet, so we linked up with Independent Ballet Wales to let them have a go.

"We even made links with the Welsh National Opera to see if we had a Charlotte Church or Katherine Jenkins in the making.

"But we have also made links with organisations such as Forestry Commission Wales to see if we had some conservationists or gardeners in our midst.

"It's opening up opportunities to our pupils and broadening their horizons that have really mattered," added Mr Phillips.

The school has found extra funding for its EBPs after gaining a pound;700 school improvement grant from Rhondda Cynon Taf council.

Mid Glamorgan EBP has helped 33 secondary schools and more than 200 primaries make links with 400 employers since 1989.

* nicola.porter@tes.co.uk

BRANCHING OUT

Making links with the Cyd Coed branch of the Forestry Commission has helped Llanharan primary to become a first-class venue for outdoor play, an all-important part of the foundation phase. The children's ambitious plans to transform their grounds into a nature-lovers' paradise were so impressive that the branch stumped up a pound;12,000 grant. Teachers, children and parents set about giving the garden a makeover, complete with woodland trails, a sandstone amphitheatre stage and several hidey-holes for birds, hedgehogs and bats. A shrub for every pupil in the school has also been planted.

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