What a show!!

Congratulations to Brighton College on a superb variety performance at the Theatre Royal in Brighton!

I have to say that it was the most professional school show I have ever, ever seen! The swing band, Strictly dancers, piano player and Chaucer act were all performances that I’m sure any member of the public would be happy to pay to see, not just parents. The standard was amazingly high. This was not your usual school show. There were no stilted lines, no twee tuneless songs, no cardboard costumes. This was classy, professional and a great celebration of the talent within the school.

What made this so much better than other school performances?
I can think of a few reasons:
– Private music lessons so everyone in the orchestras were grade 8 or above
– Private dance lessons, everyone in the dance troupe has been dancing for years and passed dance exams
– Singing tuition
– Professional costumes
– Professional lighting
– Professional sound technicians
– Students ‘giving it their all’

So could a state school compete with this? No. Never. An amazing amount of time and money has gone into this performance. I’m not saying that the students weren’t talented, just that this is talent that money can buy. Private lessons, coaching, classes etc that other kids don’t have the opportunity to do.

Out of that list then, there is only one that state schools can match:
Students ‘giving it their all’

Students ‘giving it their all’.
There were a couple of occasions in the show where I was just plain amazed at the confidence and high self esteem that these students have.
Firstly, there was a Chaucer play from the Cantebury tales. 3 young men (about 13 or 14 years old) played the main parts. They were terrific actors. They played the parts wonderfully with loads of character, clear voices and confidence. Absolutely no sign of teenage acne, poor posture and low confidence levels displayed by other 13 year old boys.
Secondly, there were two students who had reached the final of the school’s compulsory poetry recital competition. They stood on stage with no one else and recited their poems clearly and with plenty of emotion.
Thirdly, there were students who were background dancers for a song. They had to wear the most ridiculous costumes complete with leotard bikini and giant feathers coming out of their backs and heads, like 1920’s dancers. They carried off the look and danced without worrying about looking ridiculous.

As an observer, you would be forgiven for thinking you weren’t watching teenagers at all.
The teenagers I have met before are timid and shy, or loud but uncontrolled. Whether covered with acne, hunched over with bad posture or hiding themselves behind a phone they are all desperate to hide their lack of confidence in themselves with a ‘face’ or personality which doesn’t feel like theirs. There is a desperate need to conform and act like their peers to gain acceptance.

All of the schools that I have attended as a student or teacher have a certain student ‘code of conduct‘ which is hard to navigate and easy to break.
It goes like this:

Look the same way, like the same things, have the same possessions and act the same way as everyone else or you will be ostracised.

This extends to the way you style your hair, wear your socks, hold your bag. What you eat, what you listen to, what you watch on TV. What phone, coat, pencil case and pets you have.
Your life is controlled by your peers and their life is controlled by you.

My school was the same. The unwritten rules of my school were:
– Never, ever, ever wear long white socks. They are the worst. Short white socks are also bad. But black socks are best. Actually black trainer socks are better but to be the coolest you should be wearing black tights. Your black tights should not be opaque or woolly (that’s the worst!). They should not have a denier over 40 even though they rip all the time. Tights with ladders are better than thick tights. Skin coloured tights are the *best* but you should not wear them if you haven’t started shaving your legs yet or if you are in year 7 because it would seem precocious.
– Shoes should always be the Kickers brand. But Pod’s are better. They should always have a heel. Shoes from Clarkes are the worst thing you could possibly wear. They have to be from a different shop even though Clarkes sells Kickers shoes. You can’t tell your friends you got them from Clarkes.
– The school gives an option of cardigan or jumper but never, ever wear the cardigan. It is always better to be cold than cardiganed.
– Your watch should be a Baby-G. It should be one of the chunky ones in a pastel colour. It should not be in a bold colour. It has to be exactly the right kind of Baby-G watch otherwise there is no point having it.
– Year 7’s are allowed a bit of relaxation of the rules as they don’t know yet and their parents have more control. But there is absolutely no excuse to wear a vest, money belt, gym knickers, school coloured hair scrunchie or any kind of coat beyond year 7. They should preferably ditch all of these items after 1 term.

There are many, many more than this! These rules also vary from school to school and from year to year to keep you on your toes.
I remember when my little sister boasted about the fact that she had new shoes from M & S to her friends. I was appalled!! She would surely be looked down upon or ostracised for having M&S shoes?! That’s far worse than Clarkes even! But actually it turned out in her school they were fine. My husband clearly remembers that at his school the ‘cool’ kids had blazers with the school emblem embroidered on whereas the ‘uncool’ kids had patches ironed on. No one from any other school would have even noticed this difference. But to them it was the difference between friendship or loneliness.

What happens if you break the ‘rules’? You end up sitting by yourself in classes or at lunch and being the butt of a lot of jokes. Other kids forge friendships based on their snide comments about you. At school it is vital that you are the same. Differences are ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘uncool’ and the source of all gossip.

In a lot of schools these rules also dictate what grades you should get. There are thousands of bright, intelligent kids who force themselves to do badly on tests so that their friendships don’t suffer. There are also a lot of talented kids who never mention their musical or theatre abilities in front of their friends. Think about boys who do ballet, sing in choirs or do cross-stitch. Think of girls who do go-karting, go fishing or fence. In fact, think of any boy or girl doing any activity. These unwritten rules have no rhyme or reason and I’m pretty certain that every sport or activity is ‘against the rules’ in at least one school in the country.

When I was in year 5 we had a school wide poetry recital competition. We were given a choice of 5 poems. They were on the teacher’s desk and we had to go up and pick one. Everyone was quick to jump up and grab a sheet. Which one do you pick? As far as I am aware absolutely no one picked the poem that resonated the most with them. The girls in the class looked at the most popular girl for a signal, and then copied which one she picked. The guys fought for the shortest poem with the least amount of writing. I was too slow. I ended up with the uncoolest of uncool poems. Nothing made it uncool apart from the fact that it hadn’t been chosen by everyone else.
I practised this poem a lot at home. It was very difficult to remember, I still can recite the start of it:

Slowly, silently now the moon
Walks the night in a silver shoon
This way and that she peers and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees
One by one the castements hatch….”

(Please note that is most probably wrong!!)
I spent a lot of time with my parents perfecting just how I would say the words. Which words should be whispered? When should I put in a dramatic pause? How could I demonstrate the feeling of the poem through my voice?
Recitation day came and I was ready and excited. But no one else was. A lot of the other kids looked bored and uninterested. No one was practising.
In groups of 5 we stood in front of the class and took turns to recite. I was 4th in my group. Each person who said a poem did it with a deadpan, bored face and no expression or emphasis of the words at all. Everyone stumbled through the words or forgot them.
It came to my turn. Suddenly it was clear that some new unwritten rules had just been made. Poetry competitions were Not Cool. Reciting poetry was Not Cool. Being good at reciting poetry would probably be the worst social mistake that I could make.
So I started my poem. All emotion was vanquished from my voice. I plastered on a ‘bored’ expression and stumbled through the poem with the requisite pauses while I pretended to think of what came next. Then I sat down and felt deflated. I had ruined my poem but at least I had friends. To survive in a school you have to merge with the rest of the community. By doing so I had disappointed myself. I couldn’t even tell my parents.
The salt in the wound? One of the most popular boys stood up to recite and just gave it his all. He put in emotion, comedy, smiles, gestures and emphasis. To my complete surprise the whole class cheered. He had broken the rules but somehow come out on top. He had won.
That day I learnt a new unwritten rule. Cool kids are allowed to rewrite the rules. No one else can.

Going back to the Brighton College show I wonder how come two teenagers (a far more sensitive age to unwritten rules than year 5’s) could go on stage reciting poetry and get cheered by their classmates for doing so? How did all of these students get the confidence to do what they did without questioning whether they would be judged for it? Is it possible that they were *all* the most popular students and could therefore break the rules?
I doubt it.

What is more likely is that in Brighton College expressing yourself through dance, drama and music are firmly within the rules. Academic achievement is also encouraged and celebrated. In fact all achievements by the students are celebrated both by the teachers and their peers.

How does a school engender a sense of confidence and happiness in the students so that they don’t have to copy each other and are able to enjoy freedom of expression?
How does the school tap in to these ‘unwritten rules’ and keep them positive?

And can these methods be extrapolated to any school??

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Gary says:

    1) Allow and encourage students to discuss and express themselves. Reward this behaviour in some way. Set small group tasks that necessitate collaboration through discussion and the sharing of ideas. Groups must present their ideas to the class. All group members must participate in the presentation. Encourage questions and feedback from the audience. Challenge negative feedback by questioning it. Explain the benefits. Ask who they admire (pop stars? actors? These are people who earn their living by performing and expressing themselves). Once they’ve cracked the group work, they can progress to pair-work and finally individual expression/talks/performance.
    2) There needs to be a benefit to the student(s) by following desired behaviours. A genuine reward for producing a good result. This could be extended to the peer group in certain (but not all) circumstances so that the whole group is rewarded (or loses out) if an individual or small subgroup behave well or badly. Peer pressure might then tend to work amongst the group to reinforce the desired behaviours. Desired behaviour then becomes the cultural norm as each year moves up through the school.
    3) Yes


  2. Rachel says:

    Perhaps the problem is actually society rather than schools? Apparently during world book day this year loads of primary school students all turned up wearing the same football kit. Some footballer had just released an autobiography. Now imagine you were the one kid who came in dressed as the tin man…


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