Unique academy helps pupils waltz into the big time

Its dance students have become first at school level to pass HNC

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Spinning across the floor to a modern version of the traditional Hogmanay anthem Auld Lang Syne, the dancers move with poise and purpose. But their most impressive performance is offstage, as these S6 students explain how they have become the first in Scotland to complete a Higher National Certificate (HNC) while still at school.

The venue for this celebration was Denny High School near Falkirk, where earlier this month 11 girls from the school's dance academy accepted their HNC dance artist certificates. Standing in a packed school assembly hall, they described how completing an HNC - usually offered as a course only by colleges - had prepared them for the next stage of their education.

Kirsty McGuckin, who will be continuing her studies at a prestigious dance studio in New York City, said: "The dance academy has been the most influential experience of my life. Without Mrs McEwan [the academy director and head of PE], I would never have had the confidence or self-belief to even apply for Steps on Broadway, never mind be accepted."

All the pupils spoke about how training together over the past six years had forged lasting friendships and transformed their school experience. Anne McEwan established the academy in 2008 to engage more girls in physical education, but said that its impact had been far greater, improving attainment and participation throughout the school.

"When I started in Denny High School almost 10 years ago, I could count the number of girls engaged in physical activity at a senior level on one hand," she said.

"There was a distinct feeling of apathy among pupils and it was clear to see that we were failing to provide breadth and balance within our curriculum. Through dance we have raised the bar in achievement and attainment for all pupils."

Ms McEwan said that the academy had grown from "the participation of a few pupils in S1" to more than a third of the school's 1,300 pupils taking up dance through National courses, vocational courses or for leisure.

Headteacher Stephen Miller is among the staff who have taken part in the school's popular annual pupil-teacher dance-off, where the sight of the school leader doing ballet in a tutu has, perhaps unsurprisingly, helped to break down barriers.

"It has been fantastic," he said. "Every department in the school gets involved now. The motivation and dedication of the dance academy pupils has obviously had a spin-off."

The school has now been approached by several others keen to emulate its success. It costs about pound;25,000 a year to run the academy, of which some pound;10,000 is paid for out of the school's budget, while the rest comes from fundraising and fees of pound;30 to pound;40 per year which are charged to parents. The academy receives no financial support from the Scottish government.

Money for the class of 2014 was used to fly the pupils to New York to take part in workshops with the cast of Broadway musical Newsies.

Closer to home, the girls danced at various venues last year in support of Glasgow's bid to host the 2018 Youth Olympics. This week they performed at a reception for the Queen's Baton Relay ahead of this month's Commonwealth Games.

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