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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
Entitled to dance: boys in schools
Veronica Jobbins describes the positive work being undertaken in schools across the country to include more boys in dance
Schools inevitably reflect the society in which they are placed, frequently echoing the prejudices as well as the aspirations of the adult world. Dance in British schools is very similar to dance in British society: where fewer boys and men participate in dance, especially at a professional level, than girls and women. Reasons are complex but are mainly due to negative perceptions that exist within our society concerning boys dancing.

The provision for dance in schools across England, is patchy and widely variable. The time available for dance, the content of the dance curriculum and the specialist skills, knowledge and understanding of the teacher varies between schools and local authorities. Dance is compulsory at primary level within the national curriculum, but only optional in secondary schools at KS3 and KS4, so access to a coherent dance provision throughout a child's school career is rare.

For boys there is even less chance of contact with dance within the school curriculum, especially in secondary schools. Primary schools are meant to offer dance but as relatively few classroom teachers are confident in delivering the subject, the quality of lessons is variable and often teachers own prejudice concerning boys dancing, influences their attitudes and expectations. Few boys' secondary schools will provide any dance within either their PE or arts curriculum and many mixed schools will only offer dance to girls or place it within an option scheme that precludes most boys from selecting it. The statistics for GCSE Dance reflect this position where girls outnumber boys by almost twenty to one and at AS and AL Dance, by fourteen to one. John Parsons HMI at the recent National Dance Teachers Association conference in Leeds, reported that in his experience boys were likely to receive half the amount of dance teaching than girls in Year 7.

Lack of opportunity for boys to dance in school perpetuates the stereotypes and negative images that seem to go hand in hand with the idea of boys dancing, apart from denying them the physical creativity that is unique to dance. During the consultation for the draft national curriculum for Physical Education in 1990 there was uproar when it was suggested that dance should be a compulsory part of the curriculum for secondary aged boys, not least from the tabloid press. As recently as 2000 the TES letters page featured a picture of Billy Elliot and the caption "Dancing feet; should boys be forced to choose to emulate Billy Elliot?" to illustrate a letter complaining that the then proposals for the national curriculum at KS4 were too heavily weighted against games in favour of activities such as dance and gymnastics. Thankfully, the situation is changing and there is a growing awareness that boys should have equal entitlement and access to dance as girls. There has been significant progress in challenging the stereotype that boys do not dance, and in understanding strategies that encourage boys to participate in dance.

An important driver has been the growth of specialist schools. All Sports Colleges include dance as a compulsory element in the curriculum regardless of gender and Performing Arts Colleges have an equal imperative to develop an inclusive dance curriculum. A number of specialist schools have had notable success in their boys work and examples of best practice include:

  • South Dartmoor Community College, Devon has been nationally recognised for its work with boys both in the curriculum and after school, with an exceptional level of achievement for both boys and girls
  • Homewood School and Sixth Form Centre, Kent has established an all boys dance company for Key Stage 4 and post-16 pupils that has links with Brighton University Physical Education Department and their all-male student company Kickstart.

All pupils in Specialist Performing Arts Colleges have to take at least one arts GCSE, and schools such as The Lindsey School and Community Arts College, Cleethorpes have noted a significant rise in boys taking dance examinations over the last few years, with boys now representing over 30% in Year 10. It is even possible to find some boys schools offering Dance GCSE such as the Tiffin School in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey. Although rare at the moment, this marks the beginning of a distinct shift in perception and practice.

The growth of initiatives and projects focusing on boys dance is far wider than the specialist schools, and increasing numbers of secondary schools are interested to challenge stereotypes across the whole curriculum for boys, in a similar way that there has been efforts to encourage more girls to take science courses post-16.

However there is an additional imperative. There is a growing concern within education that boys are under-achieving academically in comparison with girls, and many schools are struggling with their disruptive behaviour and dis-engagement with the school curriculum. Where such 'challenges' have been identified, schools have tried a range of strategies to raise boys' achievement, including dance. Ascham House School in Gosforth, for example has introduced dance as an integral part of the development of learning and teaching strategies that are responsive to the specific and particular needs of boys.

Last year the Specialist Schools Best Practice Dance Network worked with over twenty schools to produce best practice case studies. A number of them, including Dagenham Priory School in Essex and Bishop Perowne in Worcester describe boys dance projects as a way of raising achievement.

Crucial to the development of boys dance has been the need to find learning and teaching strategies that motivate and encourage boys to participate in and enjoy dance. These have included an increasing emphasis on single sex dance teaching in mixed secondary schools, one-off projects for boys often involving a professional male dancer and frequently the use of dance ideas and themes that are accessible to boys: risk sports, skateboarding, street dance, hip hop, and links to other art forms such as film, music and physical theatre.

Inevitably there has been concern to find ways of providing male role models for boys, as most dance teachers in schools are female. Many schools are encouraging male PE teachers to teach dance classes, frequently with the support from female dance specialists. The Head of Dance at Chesterfield High School, Liverpool, instigated a long-term strategy of training and support to ensure that the boys in her school could be taught by male teachers. Frequently the boys themselves are used as role models for younger pupils as boys-only dance groups tour local primary schools, and informal mentoring occurs between older and younger boys within schools.

There are now plenty of examples where schools have taken positive action to improve boys participation in dance and they have seen dramatic increase in boys motivation in curriculum dance lesson, their participation in extra-curricular dance, and more boys opting to take dance examinations.

Veronica Jobbins is Chair of the National Dance Teachers Association and Head of Professional Studies, Laban. For more information see www.dancenetwork.org.uk and www.ndta.org.uk

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Animated: Winter 2005