Elmhurst continues to look to the future and in a recent article by Diane Parkes - a former arts writer with the Birmingham Post and Mail and now a freelance writer - we find out more from our Principal Jessica Ward. Jessica is also interviewed by the Dance Mama and Dance Dialogue blogs and you can ‘listen again’ at the end of this news section.
Birmingham’s Elmhurst Ballet School is one of the UK’s leading dance schools with graduates going on to join companies across the globe. But for Principal Jessica Wheeler it’s not just the results that count – it’s ensuring every student, staff member and parent feels nurtured, developed and supported.
Jessica took up the post of Principal in 2010 and was determined to create this sense of a valued community from her first day at the Edgbaston-based school.
“Culture and ethos has been a big driver for me,” she says. “When I first came here I looked at modernising the ways of working and bringing everyone together to have a better understanding of everyone’s roles so that they could support the students better.
“I implemented something we call the ‘Elmhurst Way’ from day one. It’s derived from the FISH! Philosophy which is taken from a fish market in Seattle and aims to create a happier community. That might sound a bit strange but for the ‘Elmhurst Way’ it’s basically ‘be there, have fun, make someone’s day, choose the right attitude’.
“It’s not a rule just for the students, it’s for all of us and it’s how we interact together. We all need to respect each other and that sets the tone and is the ethos of the school. It’s now who we are and what we do. When people come to us, they notice the openness and the warmth in the school. We have really high standards and expectations of ourselves and our students but this is grounded in kindness and humanity.”
As part of supporting students, Jessica also spearheaded the development of a new Health and Wellbeing Centre at the school. Created within an extension to the building, the centre is holistic, offering physiotherapy, a registered mental health nurse, massage, GP services, overnight support, and staff to deal with more traditional school medical centre injuries such as cuts and grazes.
The school’s Friends of Elmhurst Ballet School also funded the creation of an on-site gym to help students build strength and conditioning.
“This was a new direction for the school as traditionally in dance you didn’t go to the gym because it was perceived that you train differently,” says Jessica. “But we also wanted to look at how we could then develop that training and learn from it.
“So we worked with Wolverhampton University to create a PhD post to undertake research into strength and conditioning and its impact on outcomes of performance and injury among trainee young dancers. We’ve seen a huge reduction in the number of injuries and Dr Nico Kolokythas, who was our initial PhD student and is now Researcher and Performance Enhancement Coach at Elmhurst, is presenting at conferences all round the world as we are one of the lead research centres for this particular area.”
In early 2020 Elmhurst Ballet School recruited Performance Psychologist Niall O'Carroll who works with staff and students to look at issues including performance anxiety, pressure and coping mechanisms. The school is also one of the first in the country to develop its own Health Trust, replacing the traditional model of third party health insurance.
In September 2020, the school launched a health and wellbeing curriculum covering nutrition, anxiety, resilience and identity. By teaching the young people the factual knowledge and management skills to deal with some of the issues that can occur in such a highly competitive field, Elmhurst Ballet School hopes to prevent problems arising for the dancers either during their time as students or in their professional careers.
Chair of the national Music and Dance Scheme Schools’ Head Teachers Group and a team inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate, Jessica has been described as a ‘highly effective leader’ by Ofsted.
She believes this is because of her belief in teamwork. “I’m collaborative and consultative,” she says. “It’s really important to be approachable when you are dealing with developing young people who need to feel they are in an environment where they can talk and raise issues without being cut down.
“I really involve the students in the thinking of the development of the school and in the running of the school. We have a really active and listened-to School Council, a Charities Council and a Food Council and these councils all have members of the Leadership Team on them because we need our decision-makers to be listening to the children.
“Some things we can act on really quickly, some things take longer and some things we have to say no to but it’s really important for the students to feel they have a voice in the school and to develop their confidence.”
This confidence shows in many ways. Not only have academic results improved each year but graduates of the school have also diversified into different career pathways. Where once the school focussed largely on training classical ballet dancers, it has expanded its curriculum to give its young people a wider range of skills for an ever-changing performance market.
Graduate students now have the opportunity to perform and transition into professional careers with the creation of Elmhurst Ballet Company. And the school has links with a range of internationally renowned choreographers and companies including Birmingham Royal Ballet, Matthew Bourne’s company New Adventures, Rambert and Studio Wayne McGregor.
“When I first came to the school, students didn’t do contemporary dance when they were in their youngest years and so we introduced it from year seven,” says Jessica. “These days our graduates will be doing contemporary dance whichever company they go to so we’ve really encouraged them to open their eyes to contemporary dance as it will help them find a job. We’ve now had students work in more contemporary and commercial work and that’s a success - it means they have the toolkit to diversify.”
The school itself has also diversified to ensure its opportunities are available to all children based on ability rather than their family background. Before coming to Elmhurst, Jessica taught in London schools and she brought her experience of diversity to her new role.
“We are so committed to the ethos that talent is classless, it shouldn’t be about parental income or because you are white and have done ballet since the age of two,” she says. “It should be about anyone who has the potential being able to come to a school like this.
“We’ve done a lot of work with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Dance Track programme which has funding to go into primary schools and we also work with about 500 young people in Birmingham state schools a year. By outreach into these communities we can encourage more kids to experience dance and our students also benefit. This year's intake alone has seen 14 Dance Track students progressing to the Elmhurst Young Dancers' Programme.
“It also benefits our students. Our outreach programme is taught by our sixth formers and this gives them the opportunity to go out into different primary school environments and teach, which is a valuable life lesson.
“Many of them say that it’s been the most rewarding part of their final year programme because they were nervous about it, they went and did it, they had an amazing time, and they could see the children thriving within the lessons they taught. This is something I feel we should grow into the future.”
As a single mum with two children aged four and five, Jessica is only too aware of the pressures parents can face supporting their children through challenging times.
“Dealing with parents and families, I can see it from their point of view rather than just the organisational perspective. It is a juggling act being a parent and managing the school but it’s also good for the kids, particularly the female students, to see you can be a single parent and still have a career.”
Jessica has made many changes in the past ten years but she’s also aware Elmhurst Ballet School needs to continue evolving. The last 12 months, as the school has managed the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown and pressures on the dance industry, have been challenging but also a time to learn.
“One of the key pillars I’m working on for the future is curriculum innovation,” Jessica says. “Post-Covid, I really want to reflect on where the arts sector lands and reflect on the fact that most of our graduates will have portfolio careers across different genres in dance. We need to review our curriculum and build a curriculum to make sure it’s continuing to meet their needs and helping them become as employable as they possibly can in the future.
“I think we will start to see some real changes around our offer. We’ve started a planning cycle and by our 100th birthday in 2023 I hope we’ll have a fairly new curriculum model to launch.”
Future plans also include continuing to develop the staff team and support for students.
“It’s a bit like the idea of having a high-performance team around the kids in the same way an athlete has all they need. Even though we already have this model there is more work to do in developing the idea of a high-performance culture moving forwards across the school.
“And the last piece of the puzzle is making sure that we are sustainable and that we have secure funding and income and that all of our systems are as efficient as they can be.
“Putting these three pillars in place – curriculum innovation, a high-performance team and sustainability – are the future of the school. We will never be a finished article because the world changes and we are evolving as things move – but that is what continues to interest and excite me.”
(This article was published in the Birmingham Post on Thursday 7 January 2021)