West Side Story: Headteacher’s Review

What a show! West Side Story ran for three nights and a matinée from 10th-12th February at The Playhouse, Weston-Super-Mare. I’ve been involved in school productions since the age of 12 and I’ve never seen anything so ambitious and so impressive. It’s not every school that puts on their show in a professional theatre, and we’re very grateful to The Playhouse for their hospitality and expertise. The facilities and the surroundings certainly added to the experience for the audience and the students lived up to the expectations, raising their game to professional standards. 


Griff and Bernardo square up

Every aspect from the costumes to the choreography, the production design to the performances, the band to the backstage crew was first-rate. The whole cast and crew meshed together in perfect sync, with the dynamic set changes smoothly managed and entrances and exits sharp, crisp and timed to perfection. Once on stage characters were clearly defined – not just from the leads. The Sharks sashayed with Latin passion, the Jets dripped with urban cool, and within the gangs it was clear to see careful and subtle characterisation. The leads, though, were truly outstanding. I saw the show on the Friday when Adam Caulfield as Riff and Michael Nickells as Bernardo seethed and glowered at one another with all the menace and threat of young men who could not – would not – back down. The tension created between these two young men, on the verge of adulthood but still with the naïvety of youth, was wonderfully counterpointed by George Davis as Tony and the Anna Lalande as Maria. George showed from his first appearance that he had outgrown the petty squabbles of the street gangs, and tackled the vocally demanding solos and duets with great assurance. Opposite him, Anna Lalande was sublime – her voice filled the auditorium and captivated everyone. I was particularly impressed by Jodie McKitterick as Anita, who managed the transition from live wire joker to broken victim with real skill. 


Tony and Maria meet

Of course, it was a production with two casts, and my sources from the Thursday night performance assure me that the other performers were just as impressive. Dr Wratten wrote of the second cast: 

“they not only did their own bits brilliantly but always acted as a team. Of course, some individuals shone – the challenge of the on-going aggro and fight scenes between the boys was always compelling and strongly led by Adam, Dawid, Jasper, Jake and Christian; the sheer Latin vitality of the Sharks’ ladies was brilliant, especially Nina, Ruby, Jess, Jasmine and Rosie. But the principals shone very brightly – the duets between Edward and Molly and Molly and Lucy were well beyond their years. The almost final, haunting piece between Maria and Anita would have brought the house down if everyone wasn’t silently weeping.”


Dancers in action

The dances were no less impressive. In her programme notes, Miss Lippe commented on the joy of working with male performers with little or no previous dance training – if it wasn’t for that note, I would never have known. The commitment, timing and energy of the dance from the very first number was astonishing. Particularly moving were the interpretations of Somewhere in the second half, where imagination of what was possible gave way, horrifyingly, to what was likely.

My final word goes to the incredible twenty-three piece orchestra, which delivered Leonard Bernstein’s complex and challenging score with huge energy and sensitivity. Working tirelessly to support the performances on stage, the applause for the musicians was justifiably rapturous at the final curtain call. 

What a show indeed. Thanks to all the staff, students, friends and family who made the production possible. Everyone involved – including the audience – has memories to treasure for a lifetime.


The Jets

In Production



The cast of West Side Story 2016

This week Churchill has been buzzing with the excitement of West Side Story being performed at The Playhouse in Weston-Super-Mare. Well over a hundred students and staff are involved in this enormous production, which has been over a year in the making and is the culmination of countless hours of hard work, dedication and effort. Is it worth it? You bet!


Programmes from some of the shows I’ve done…I got some of them signed in case the cast went on to be famous!

I know first hand what it means to be involved in a school production. My history with them goes right back to being second innkeeper in my primary nativity! However, it wasn’t until secondary school that I got fully involved with drama, working behind the scenes on lighting for many of our plays including Guys and Dolls, Our Country’s Good, Cider with Rosie, Animal Farm and Evacuees. The highlight for me was definitely the production of Twelfth Night we put on when I was in Year 13. It was a beautiful production and it felt like an incredible team effort!

I carried on my drama work throughout university and into my career as a teacher. I was in the band for Bugsy Malone and (my favourite show!) Return to the Forbidden Planet at my first school, and even made an appearance as Johnny Casino in our production of Grease! I ended up directing or co-directing productions later on in my career, including a heady spell of co-writing plays for our school to put on with the Head of Drama. We adapted the story of Faust in a production called “Tina”, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream became Fairylandatopia, before I returned to the Forbidden Planet for my final stint as director (in a production starring the now famous Jack Howard as Captain Tempest…but I didn’t get him to sign a programme!)


The programme for West Side Story

Why do we do it? Let me count the ways! Clearly there’s the opportunity to learn such a range of skills in the performing and expressive arts area – performance is the ultimate aim. Acting, playing, singing, dancing, choreographing, directing and conducting all go into the show, alongside lighting, sound, costume, make up, set and production design and construction, stage management, marketing…the list is endless. The chance for young people to learn and practise these skills in a “live” context is invaluable.

Above all, though, it’s the connections that the production makes which mean it’s integral to the school’s calendar. The fact that so many staff and students need to work together as a single team towards a single goal galvanises the whole community, and shows that together we are so much more than the sum of our parts.

I know what it takes to put a production – the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, that bad rehearsal where everything goes wrong and you wonder if it’s ever going to work…but it always does. And when the audience is laughing or gasping or gripped in collective silence by the action on the stage, when they applaud and you just can’t stop smiling with pride – that’s when it’s worth it.

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Well done to everybody involved in West Side Story – I can’t wait for the next one!



Why we don’t allow mobiles in school

First things first – I love my phone. I use it all the time. Lots of the stuff I use it for is practical: it’s an alarm clock to get me up in the morning; it’s a newspaper to read; it’s a weather forecaster to prepare me for the day; it’s my diary so I know what I’m supposed to be doing, when; it’s my satnav to get me to the places I need to be. But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t acknowledge that it’s also a huge productivity vacuum: social media is lurking on my home screen with those tempting notification bubbles and there’s a little folder called “games” which tempts me away from what I should be doing with a little voice saying “just one more go…” You don’t get three stars on every level of Angry Birds overnight. I know if I want to get any work done, I put my phone on “Do Not Disturb”. And silent. In a different room.

Angry Birds

Three stars on every level. A sad indictment.

And this a major issue. Whilst a mobile device is an incredible piece of technology, and has the capability to assist and develop learning in and beyond the classroom, the distraction factor far outweighs the benefit. And this isn’t just my opinion. A large scale study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics found schools that banned mobiles enjoyed a boost in the proportion of pupils getting five good passes at GCSE, compared with schools that allowed pupils to keep their phones. Richard Murphy, one of the co-authors of the paper, said that the distraction and low-level disruption caused by pupils having mobile phones in school appeared to be behind the results. He said “a strict ban on mobile phones does seem to be effective in improving student tests scores, especially those that a school might be concerned about, because it ups the number of students getting five good GCSEs.”

If we want students to learn, we have to ensure that they focus on the task in hand: learning. “There is plenty of solid evidence which shows that in order to learn, we have to pay attention. Again and again, research shows that when people are distracted or when they start multitasking, they don’t do as well as when they are able to concentrate fully on one task,” said Daisy Christodoulou, director of research at Ark Schools.

Another reason is one of dependency. There is a growing body of evidence that smartphones are addictive. A recent University of Derby study found that smartphone use caused distraction from employment, hobbies and studies, could increase narcissism and cause “real life” communication skills to suffer. As a school, we need to help young people develop exactly those “real life” communication skills; a day in school should be time away from the demanding electronic screens in our pockets. Essena O’Neil’s public disconnection from social media is just one example of how the pressure of life online can impact on mental health. One school in London even ran an experiment called Project Disconnect where students lived without their technology for a week. They reported feeling happier, reading more, and interacting more effectively. You can see their video below:

Finally, there’s the safeguarding issue. Over our wireless network we know that internet access is safe, monitored and filtered. But if students had phones – even if only at social times – access to 3G and 4G networks means that access to inappropriate material would be out of our control, as would the ability to take and share photographs and videos without consent or knowledge. Whilst the vast majority of our students, I’m sure, use technology responsibly, the risk to safeguarding would be significant. Besides, I’d far rather see groups of students smiling, laughing and talking to one another face to face at social times than sat around tables looking down, their faces bathed in the artificial glow of an iPhone screen.

Of course, we also have a duty to develop students’ expertise in using digital technologies and our curriculum does exactly that. But the learning comes first. Where technology is essential, or where it will enhance and improve the learning experience, we will invest in it, use it and explore it. But we must weigh up the benefits of new technologies against the potential drawbacks it might have, and in most cases there is usually a way to achieve the learning objective without a classroom of smartphones.

So this is why we don’t allow phones in school. I appreciate the irony of writing about this on a blog, and you’re probably reading on your phone right now. But I’d urge you – after you’ve followed us on Twitter, liked us on Facebook, and subscribed to our email mailing list – to switch it off, put it away, and spend some quality time IRL.