Star performers;Secondary

10th April 1998 at 01:00
Spice girl Mel B's old school is a centre of excellence for the performing arts where lessons in stagecraft raise students' achievement across the curriculum. Kevin Berry treads the boards at Intake High

It's competitive - it mirrors the real world and the real world doesn't get any harder than being here," says David Robbins, head of performing arts at Intake High School.

The school is an outwardly ordinary comprehensive, set in the bleak, unpromising urban sprawl of west Leeds. But it attracts young showbiz hopefuls from all over West Yorkshire.

For 20 years Intake High has enjoyed a remarkable reputation for excellence in the performing arts. One group of former students established the Phoenix Dance Company. And graduates of Intake High's specialist performing arts course include dancer and choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller, actor Steven Waddington, whose roles include the lead in the BBC television production of Ivanhoe, and Spice Girl Mel B.

Last December Intake's reputation was finally recognised when the school was granted arts college status - the only surprise was that it took two applications.

About half the students are from economically disadvantaged areas and a fair proportion are lower-ability students, but the place is buzzing.

The list of former students who are now top designers, lighting engineers and arts administrators shows the breadth of the school's performing arts curriculum.

The performing arts course is always oversubscribed, with just 30 places each year. Entry in Year 7 is by primary school head's recommendation and an interview, with an audition as an option.

Even though selection is not on academic ability, the performing arts students do significantly better than others at GCSE in all subjects, 57 per cent getting A to Cs last year compared with 31 per cent in the school as a whole. And their A-level grades compare favourably with students from schools in leafier locations.

The knock-on effect on other subjects mirrors the findings of research carried out in Bristol, which show that children who take part in performing arts tend to achieve better results across the board (see story below).

Intake's performing arts students used to work towards A-levels in dance, theatre studies, English and art and design, but the school found them too theoretical, and introduced a BTEC National in Performing Arts four years ago.

"Performance arts A-levels can be very dry and dusty," Mr Robbins explains. "Most of our students come up from a 'doing' base and are burning with enthusiasm. A-levels can sometimes be demotivating for them."

Students can still take A-levels with a BTEC - only three Year 12 students have chosen not to do so this year. "You get the best of the theatre world, with the academic rigour of an additional A-level," Mr Robbins says.

It is very much a vocational curriculum. Students receive tuition in areas such as lighting, sound and set design, in line with the school's belief that multi-skilled people are more employable. Staff maintain that the best performers are those who understand the technical aspects, and the best technicians are those who can see things from the performers' point of view.

"I want to extend my experience into dance and acting," says 16-year-old Liz Keeting. "You might be strong in one area but not in the others. You have to learn to communicate, to move on stage. Singing on its own is not enough."

Liz has been singing since she was a toddler. She has an agent and sings on the West Yorkshire club circuit at weekends and, occasionally, on a school night.

Intake does not have the aura of a stage school - there are no signs of precociousness and certainly no students suddenly bursting into numbers from Cats when a visiting journalist passes along the corridor.

Headteacher Barry Middleton, who arrived at Intake 10 years ago, talks of the performing arts students' enthusiasm and motivation having a knock-on effect for other pupils. Signs of an elitist "them and us" culture were apparent when he started, but he is pleased that drama, dance and music classes are now mixed.

Pre-16 performing arts students follow an enriched PA curriculum, but they often work alongside "mainstream" children and children with special needs - Intake High is a designated school for the disabled and has a fully resourced dyslexic centre.

Mr Middleton says some mainstream Year 11s, after time spent with extra-curricular performers, opt for performing arts in the sixth form, while performing arts graduates have chosen law at university.

"We keep dreams alive here," David Robbins says. "But we don't give students unrealistic aspirations. We'll tell them where they are in the scheme of things, but to be honest most of them know. The ones who have it take what's best from here and they've got the guts and the drive to make it all work."

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