Young stars help all to shine

5th November 2004 at 00:00
What is the impact on the rest of the school when a talented troupe of pupils reaches for the very top?

The 30th anniversary Schools Prom next week prompts me to wonder just what it takes to develop, particularly in a primary school, any activity to the level where it becomes noticed by a wider, even a national audience. And is it worth the effort when there are so many priorities pushing for attention?

As a primary governor, it is a question that interests me, because at our school, St Giles junior in Warwickshire, we have a bhangra dancing group that is in demand across the country. They have danced for the senior managers of HSBC at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Birmingham. They've been to business dinners and receptions across the northern half of England, to folk festivals around the country and starred at just about every intercultural event in the region.

Colourful, with fabulous traditional costumes, energetic and exciting, disciplined and professional, everywhere the youngsters go they are cheered, and because they're children, they're loved as well.

We are talking, though, of only 17 children, in a school with the usual range of challenges and demands, so why do we think we are right to carry on?

Part of the answer lies in the way that the group isn't tacked on to the school in isolation, but emerges from much wider activity. Two classes learn bhangra within the school day, and about 60 come to the open-to-all session after school. Crucially, there's little separating out the special display team. Retired teacher Averil Bonsor who runs the bhangra says:

"All the children learn the movements of the team, with the team members split among them. Then when we have a performance coming up we only need to spend the last 15 minutes or so with the team on the last couple of weeks beforehand."

Some excellent school choirs work in the same way - a large number of children enjoy singing the songs and the choir then emerges, made up of the willing and able. With little overt selection and certainly no auditions, it is a process that sits well with primary school values.

Chris O'Malley, who teaches world music to hundreds of children at the Grove primary in Birmingham, calls this "having a broad base of universal access".

Chris, who is currently researching this area, says that "elite" groups which grow from broad participation have a beneficial effect on the whole school. "You get a sort of dynamic of creativity," he says. "A general acceleration of standards."

Much of this, he says, is because the children are presented with role models. "As well as adult leaders, they need leaders among the children, too."

At the independent Bedford prep school, having a group of the youngest boys in the National Festival of Music for Youth last summer helped to put the arts into focus in a school already well known for its academic and sporting standards.

"Parents have come up to me and said their sons have become passionate about music and desperate to start an instrument. It has really turned round their perception of music," says music specialist Patrick Richmond.

Parental enthusiasm, once won, is gold dust to the teacher leading an extra-curricular activity. Suki Johal, mother of Rosie, a nine-year-old in our bhangra team is clear why she gives time and energy to the group.

"It presents our community and our culture to a large number of people," she says.

And because it is by no means only the Punjabi children who perform - about 40 per cent are from the host community - there is a strong sense that this, too, shows respect for Suki Johal's culture. As Bob Jelley, our head, puts it: "The diversity of our school is a richness and strength, and through the bhangra we are sharing it."

It isn't always plain sailing. Patrick Richmond's National Festival preparations caused the postponement of a rugby fixture. Diplomacy is needed, and a head with faith, vision and a steady nerve. Governors, too, may need to make courageous funding decisions - it is not always easy to give a specialist teacher time to work the necessary magic in a cash-strapped school.

In the end, success wins people over - not just cups and certificates, but children who show new-found talent and confidence. That's why an early priority for any newly-formed group or team is to be seen in action - on a stage, in a market square, in a shopping mall.

The important home fixture, though, is always the school assembly. Here is where the role models become fixed and the rest of the school begins to see progress. "Appearing in assembly meant the group was seen as cool," says Patrick Richmond.

Schools Prom, Friday magazine 6

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