The Royal Ballet School | Independent Schools Inspectorate report for 2011

January 16, 2012

Ballet News

The Royal Ballet School | Independent Schools Inspectorate Inspection 2011

Darcey Bussell in rehearsal clothes

Darcey Bussell, retired Royal Ballet Principal and former Royal Ballet School student training the cast of Strictly Come Dancing 2009 at the Royal Ballet School Photograph : BBC Pictures

During October and November last year inspectors from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspected The Royal Ballet Lower and Upper Schools (RBS).  ISI is a body approved for the purpose of inspection under Section 162A of the Education Act 2002. As such we report to the Department for Education (DfE) on the extent to which schools meet statutory requirements. ISI is the agency responsible for the inspection of schools in membership of the Associations of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). ISI inspection is for the benefit of the pupils in the schools and seeks to improve the quality and effectiveness of their education and of the care for their welfare. Inspection also provides objective and reliable reports on the quality of schools and, by placing reports in the public domain, makes the information available to parents, Associations, government and the wider community.”

I wanted to highlight parts of the 2011 inspection report to you, as it reveals interesting insights into ballet school life with which you may be unfamiliar.

To begin, how do the inspectors assess the school ? The Royal Ballet Lower and Upper Schools are regarded as one entity for the purpose of this report as the ISI explains, “the school operates on two sites, both of which have specialist ballet facilities. From eleven to sixteen years of age, students in the lower school live and work at White Lodge, a listed building that was once a royal hunting lodge, situated in Richmond Park. From sixteen to nineteen, upper school students are taught in a purpose-built building, adjoining the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and are accommodated in boarding houses or flats within a short travelling distance. The two sites operate separately on a day-to-day basis but the school is a single unit under the oversight of the director and a single governing body. Since the previous inspection there have been major building changes in the lower school and the construction of a completely new upper school. All upper school boarding students are now housed in school accommodation.”

The inspection itself is carried out in two parts with an initial 2-day regulatory requirement inspection followed by a 3-day team inspection of the school from an academic perspective. The last ISI inspection was in October 2005. In order to carry out their inspection, ISI inspectors observe lessons, examine students’ work and conduct formal interviews with them. Inspectors hold discussions with senior staff and the chair of governors, observe a sample of extra-curricular activities occurring during the inspection period (18 Oct 2011 to 19 Oct 2011 and 16 Nov 2011 to 18 Nov 2011) and attend registration and assemblies. Additionally the inspectors visit boarding houses and facilities for sick/injured students. Analysis of the responses from parents and students as well as regulatory documentation made available by the school complete the tasks.

What areas will the ISI inspection cover ? Mostly the inspection is from an educational perspective though the inspectors will, if necessary, comment on any significant issues which have an adverse impact on children. The inspectors look at the quality of education provided (both teaching and curriculum), spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of students as well as their health and welfare, the suitability of staff, premises and accommodation, provision of information and the manner in which complaints are to be handled.

White Lodge

The Royal Ballet Lower School, White Lodge, Richmond Park Photograph : BHM Architects

The Royal Ballet School

At the time of inspection the age range of the students at the Royal Ballet Lower and Upper Schools was 11-19, with the total number of pupils currently 218 : 111 boys and 107 girls, of which only 8 were day pupils and the rest boarders. There were 124 students in the Lower School exactly split between gender (62) and 94 Upper School students (49 boys and 45 girls).

The Royal Ballet School is academically non-selective. All students are selected on the basis of their potential as classical ballet dancers. The report finds that the majority of the Lower School students are of at least above average ability in a fairly wide range of abilities and Upper School students broadly similar to the national average. The report says, “students come from a very wide cross section of socio-economic groups, religious backgrounds and urban and rural settings across the UK and a variety of countries overseas. There are 34 students for whom English is an additional language (EAL), of whom 25 receive language support. There are 23 students identified as having learning difficulties because of special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), of whom 17 receive additional support. No student has a statement of special educational needs. Most students are wholly or partly funded by the Department for Education’s Music and Dance Scheme and 44 benefit from a range of awards offered by the school.”

Students at The Royal Ballet School achieve excellent results.  The report says, “they are outstanding in ballet and good in academic work. Students with SEND and those with EAL make as much progress as other students. Students respond to the challenge of the vocational dance courses with exemplary focus and commitment and they develop remarkable technical ability and a deep understanding of the art. In academic studies and at every stage the overall standard of literacy, numeracy, articulacy and proficiency in information and communication technology (ICT) is high. Students display secure knowledge, skills, and understanding of the subjects that they study. Their attitude to learning is impressive and clearly the self-disciplined approach of ballet is carried over into their academic lessons. They are supported by the rich diet of the ballet curriculum and an academic curriculum that meets their needs very well.”

Of ballet teaching in particular, the report says, “the standard of ballet instruction is exceptional. Teaching is strongly supportive and encouraging as well as being extremely exacting. The overall quality of the teaching of academic subjects is excellent. Teachers are clearly keen to share their passion for their subject.”

Additionally the inspectors looked at the students’ personal development, which they said was excellent. “Their spiritual development centres on their shared love for an art form which aims relentlessly at beauty and grace. The students have a strong sense of right and wrong and their social development is outstanding.”

The Royal Ballet School leadership and governance

What of the leadership and governance of the school ? The report concludes, “the aims of the school are fulfilled and promoted by the governing body in an outstanding way. Leadership is tireless and dynamic. Parents are unanimously satisfied with the governance and management of the school. Critical comments of a very small minority of parents about opportunities to be involved in the life of the school were not substantiated by the inspection team.”

In terms of student achievements, the report confirms that “all the upper school students reach an artistic standard which gains entrance to ballet companies all over the world. The students are extremely flexible, expressive, skilful and gifted. They develop the ability to memorise very long sequences of exercises. They also acquire a very good understanding of what is being required of them, physically, emotionally and artistically. They develop remarkable technical ability and a deep understanding of the art. Students gain many international dance awards in both classical ballet and choreography and in the last five years all Year 14 students have secured posts with ballet companies. Results of lower school students at GCSE level have been above the national average for maintained schools. On average students have gained seven GCSEs each with the overwhelming majority of grades between A and C.”

Why are these results noteworthy ? The report says “although the school has small classes, teaching of academic subjects occurs for only about two-thirds of the conventional school working day. A-level results are broadly in line with the national average for maintained schools. This level of attainment and evidence from BTEC lessons, scrutiny of students’ work and lesson observations indicate that appropriate progress is made in relation to students of similar ability. Again this is noteworthy given that teaching takes place in less time than is usual. Students with SEND and EAL make at least as much progress in academic work as other students. In 2010 students with EAL attained at a similar level to other students in BTEC work.” The students spend 3 years in the Upper School, where the final year is concerned with the preparation and audition for professional careers.

If you’ve ever spent time at the RBS, perhaps at an Open Day, you’ll agree with the report here, “in all of their ballet classes discipline is immaculate and they maintain sharply focused concentration. They bring much of this approach with them into academic lessons. They are very diligent and will apply themselves wholeheartedly to the set task for the required length of time.”

The Royal Ballet Lower School, White Lodge, Richmond Park

One of the reasons that students from around the world often aim for a place at The Royal Ballet School above all others is because of the teachers themselves, and the report says “for ballet teaching the school is fortunate to be able to draw on the expertise not only of its resident staff but also of the staff from The Royal Ballet, with the consequence that the standard of instruction is exceptional. While the teaching is sympathetic and patient, teachers nonetheless expect the students to remember what they have been taught, so that the necessarily repetitive practice brings about constant improvement. The careful correction of the smallest movement or body position helps the students as they strive for perfection. The great deal of individual attention ensures that students remain focused on a continuous process of self-improvement.” And it’s not only the ballet teachers – “enthusiastic participants in their lessons, they [the students] are readily responsive, offering answers and opinions articulately and confidently. When working in pairs or groups, they co-operate very well. Students’ books and files are very well organised, giving evidence of application and perseverance. Work is smartly presented, reflecting pride and care. The overall quality of the teaching of academic subjects is excellent. Teachers are well qualified; their level of knowledge and expertise is high. With quiet, firm control, behaviour in the small classes is managed outstandingly well, to the benefit of effective learning. The teachers’ rapport with their students is excellent. Teachers pay close attention to the needs of each individual student. They know who might struggle with a topic and are quick to help them if required. Expectations are high and students are urged to give of their best. In their questionnaire responses, the students acknowledged that they were encouraged to think for themselves and to work independently, and this was confirmed during the inspection.”

Did you know that everyone in the Lower School is in the school choir ? The report says “as well as participating in links with local schools and churches, students dance at charitable events in the locality and give demonstrations to visiting groups of various ages and composition. They enthusiastically undertake fundraising initiatives, mainly in support of medical or children’s charities.”

At the Upper School, “the school day is necessarily long in the upper school, which in turn reduces the amount of additional time students are able to give to any additional activities. Notwithstanding this some students said they would like a continuation of lower school activities such as music, and others would welcome drama. Inspectors agreed and have made this recommendation to the school, along with the provision of a greater number of individual study desks for year 12 students.

There are many benefits to being a student at the RBS which the report highlights. For example, “the physical link by bridge to the Royal Opera House facilitates the curriculum links to this institution and students take part in the Christmas production of Nutcracker by The Royal Ballet Company. Over the past year, students have been called for Sylvia, Cinderella, Peter and the Wolf, Manon, Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake. Additionally, students tour internationally and many make a positive contribution to The Dance Partnership and Access Programme, which each year links the school with several maintained schools and gives students valuable access to very different school environments.”

Royal Ballet history and tradition

At White Lodge, the Lower School in Richmond Park, the report picks up on training in such an historic location, “conscious that they are inheritors of a great tradition, students are inspired by the example of those who have gone before them and by frequent exposure to live and recorded performances of great exponents of the art. They appreciate the privileged setting in which they are being trained. In the lower school students’ spiritual awareness has a more overt religious dimension evident in the way they respond reverently and thoughtfully to the spiritual content of assemblies. The students’ social development is outstanding. They understand what it is to be part of a close-knit community and they support one another very well. The exceptional expectations of good manners in all aspects of ballet are reflected in the way in which the students conduct themselves around the school. They are extremely polite and their behaviour is exemplary. Unselfconscious, the students are at ease with one another, with the staff and with visitors.”

And here’s an interesting tradition : “Throughout the school, there is a culture of the older students looking after and taking care of the younger ones. Students take their mentoring, guiding and other responsibilities seriously. Female Year 8 guides give their Year 7 charges a decorated pointe shoe, which is still a highly prized possession in Year 11. Accustomed to abiding by the etiquette of ballet, the students conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion. They are courteous, friendly and considerate. Students say that bullying is not an issue: they are confident that any instances would be resolved swiftly and fairly. Thanks to the general ethos and expectation of good behaviour, staff rarely have to take a firm stance over disciplinary matters.”

Ballet school celebrates Chinese New Year and Thanksgiving

In line with the multi-cultural intake at the school, “an inevitable unstated sense of competition, which staff carefully downplay, does not prevent students looking out for each other. In EAL lessons, stronger speakers help beginners; in the upper school boarding houses new students are supported by old hands from the lower school, and Chinese New Year is celebrated, as is Thanksgiving.”

Ballet nutrition

Of nutrition provision at the school, the report says “ballet gives students a busy daily regime of exercise. Lower school meals in the light, airy dining hall are civilised, congenial occasions. With menus carefully compiled, the food is extremely nutritious and there is plenty of choice. In the upper school, students have the freedom of going off-site and lunching in the Royal Opera House canteen. The importance of nutrition as part of dance training is underlined throughout the school.”

And what about boarding – which isn’t for every student ? It works very well at the RBS with the report concluding, “there is a real sense of community among the boarders. Students get on very well with one another and with the boarding staff. They say that they enjoy the boarding experience and feel that it helps their personal development. The standard of care exercised by the staff is extremely high. Parents’ views of boarding at the lower school are overwhelmingly positive. All aspects of the boarding are run efficiently and the administrative structures are very good. Boarding makes a striking contribution to the experience of students at the upper school. In their first year, the tube travel and the shopping and cooking for themselves, help to establish their independence right at the start. Supervision is encouraging, supportive but applied with as light a touch as is consistent with establishing basic rules of living together. Despite, in many cases, having local parents or guardians, many students stay in flats at weekends, because they enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and freedom of life in the boarding house.”

The transition to boarding school is managed very well according to the inspection. “The daily ballet programme, including any special arrangements, is published in meticulous detail. A sense of busy, friendly purposefulness characterises school life. The success of the school’s management may be attributed in large measure to a happy mixture of the formal and the informal. All those in senior positions are easily approachable and accessible. Staff meet one another frequently during the course of the day and are consequently able to discuss matters of interest or concern at a very early stage. Staff are given the opportunity for open discussion and for raising any issues regarding students.”

All in all, if you weren’t already aware, the Royal Ballet School is doing a first class job of delivering its mission “to train and educate outstanding classical ballet dancers for The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and other top international dance companies, and in doing so to set the standards in dance training, nationally and internationally.”

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