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Education

Litter-ally, Purrrfect! Crawley school brings musical CATS to life

Stop whatever you are doing and book a ticket for you and the family to go and see this amazing show.

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I was nervous, very nervous. It is over 20 years since I squeezed into the tights, pulled the wig on and plastered my face in makeup eight times a week to play one of two parts in CATS.

So the moment it was announced that St Wilfrid’s was taking on this, (the best musical ever written in my opinion) hairs at the back of my neck stood up as all the memories flooded back and suddenly there was that sickening mix of excitement and nerves for them.

CATS is not an easy musical to put on by any means. It is a non-stop mix of dance and song and most of the time the two are combined together. A job difficult enough for a professional never mind students.

Made up and based on poems by T.S.Eliot it tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and one night in particular, but I wont give anything away.

It is also a musical whose cast is litter-ally (oops used that one in the title already) huge.

So here you have a legendary production, a large cast, dancing, singing and non-stop drama to keep even the most demanding critics happy and yet you have students from all years, most of whose only experience of acting and dance comes from their drama classes. How on earth do you recreate something so epic?

Well ask St Wilfrid’s. Not only have they managed to pull it off, they have taken it a step further than even I could have ever expected.

It’s all too easy to come away from a school production and rave about how good it was with most people responding with ‘oh well done for them’ but a knowing wink that you didn’t really mean it.

So let me put that straight right now.

This is such a good production that if you are to see ANY theatre production this year, professional or amateur then it MUST be this one!

Let’s start with the set. Worthy of the West End or Broadway and cleverly filled with parts from past productions the school has put on over the years. I spent ten minutes before it all started trying to count how many I could find.

Then there is the lighting, something people just take for granted. But look at these photos and tell me these were taken in a school hall!

Yet again an orchestra not a sound recording booms out across the audience and I defy anyone to tell the difference.

The orchestra who power through a complex score

And the moment the lights dim and the first performers take to the stage the energy in the room is electrified.

Every single performer on that stage became a CAT. Some kittens, some adolescents but at no time, not for a single second, did any one break from character. We were watching art that never deviated from its path and that is something truly remarkable.

Within moments of them appearing on stage we were instantly drawn in to the Jellicle world and what a world they brought us.

As with every year St Wilfrid’s invited local primary schools to watch their dress rehearsal and most years fifty or sixty children will come along with their teachers.

Not this year. The auditorium was packed! What’s more there was no whispering, no children playing around, they were all hooked.

St Wilfrid’s has put together two casts in order to allow as many of their students to take part as possible so it would be unfair to point out particular actors or performances BUT having said that do watch out for Munkustrap whose stage presence is powerful and my favourite character (mainly because I played it) Skimbleshanks whose elegance is exactly how the character should be.

Talking of elegance some of the dancing is of such high standards you forget these aren’t professionals. But you know what, at times and in mine and everyone else minds they were just as good as any pro I have met.

Possibly the most famous song of the musical is Memory and the pressure to perform that song must be intense. Well any worries they had were un-necessary.

But let’s not forget those who are unseen without whom none of this would even be possible.

The make-up for example. Perfection!

The fantastic make up artists

The backstage crew, as professional as it comes.

Possibly the best back stage crew in the county

And of course the incredible director James Hadden who has done something so fantastic that I will be raving about this for months.

What this show does is show what true talents this town of ours has. Everyone involved will take a step back after it is all over with on Saturday night and slowly, ever so slowly it will start to sink in just what an incredible production they have been part of. Something they will remember for a lifetime.

But for now they should enjoy every second of it, because this IS the best musical of all time and one you MUST NOT miss.

Tickets are available on the door but to ensure you dont’ miss out you can ring 01293 421 421 and book them. Priced at £8 for adults and £6 for concessions it is money well spent and a perfect night out for all the family. Performance start at 7pm from Wed 27th to Sat 2nd March with a Matinee performance at 2.30 on the Saturday.

Education

‘Amazing’ the words of pupils as Crawley school bounces back

Last year the only words to describe Thomas Bennett Community College that were being shared across Tilgate and around Crawley were ‘strike’, ‘desperate’ and ‘cuts’.

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Politicians around the area were up in arms as panic began to slowly set in as parents, students and even teachers began to club together as worry of the schools future was banded around.

It got so bad that a public meeting was called with even the town council leader speaking out saying ‘people are desperate’. What then followed was a call for a strike and even pupils deciding to take action themselves before protesters then marched through the town.

Reports of teachers and support staff quitting their jobs only added to the heated discussions being held. All said it left Thomas Bennett Community College under a very dark cloud.

Fast forward almost a year and it is a very different story and one that needs to be proclaimed with the loudest of voices from the highest of towers.

For a change has occurred within the very fabric of the school and it is evident, not just from details within a new Ofsted report, but also from the energy of both the pupils and the staff.

School should be a safe and happy environment. It should be a place where young people can learn, where staff can help develop young minds in a caring and motivated environment. It should be a place that creates fond memories. Well now all these ‘should bes’ are becoming a reality.

No one person can make such a dramatic change, it takes many, but what it does require is a leader to take hold of the reins and to show belief and this is exactly what the new head Stuart Smith has done.

Headteacher Stuart Smith

Mr Smith only took over as headteacher in January this year but in less than six months the change has been meteoric and this hasn’t just been noticed by those who can be the most critical, the pupils, but also the inspectors.

Three years ago an Ofsted report deemed the school ‘Requires Improvement’ across the board. The key findings pointing out flaws which at the time were then being addressed.

The problem was that with funding cuts and moral falling it was a battle that seemed overwhelming. Whatever the reasons over the course of the following years the resulting impact affected everyone.

In the latest report, whilst most of the findings are still resulting in the same result it is when you delve into the details that you see change is afoot and had Ofsted done their inspection a little later in the year then the result would have been extremely different.

Firstly the sixth form has now been given a ‘good’ standing, something unthinkable when you look back only months to see many of them protesting on the streets with their parents.

Then there are the comments about the new headteacher.

“The recent appointment of a permanent headteacher has improved matters significantly”

“The headteacher has improved the school’s culture so that is more aspirational for staff and pupils.”

“Staff agree that the current headteacher has transformed the school.”

And a comment from one teacher shows just how much of an impact Mr Smith is having with Ofsted even publishing their quote, ‘the headteacher is relentlessly positive.’

But it doesn’t stop there. The report even mentions how there has been a transformation of pupils’ behaviour and how the school has now developed an effective personal and social education.

Dr Karen Roberts CEO of The Kemnal Academies Trust said:

“We are pleased that the inspectors recognised that the school is now making rapid improvements under the leadership of the recently appointed Headteacher. We are fully aware that there is much still to be done and the Trust will provide the support needed to ensure the students at Thomas Bennett received a good education.”

But the real test is not with any government inspector. Nor is it with a board of governors or a Trust or even concerned parents. The real test is with the customers themselves. The pupils.

With no direction or interruption from a teacher we were able to speak with pupils from all years in a round table session where we asked for them to speak openly about the school. What happened was startling.

Normally these interviews can be awkward with pupils conscious of a teacher analysing their words. But they can also be a real insight into what the ‘real’ feeling is amongst those most critical of their environment.

There was a real energy, a positivity that empowered you as you listened. There was pride and they wanted to share it.

After hearing their stories of how the school was such a different place last year they were asked to sum why someone should come to Thomas Bennett and to use one word to sum the school up. These are the actual responses from several of those

“The teachings great. Positive”

“You get so many opportunities. Positive”

“The teachings really good, you can make really good friends here even if they are in an older year. You never feel pressured into anything. We have gone through all the negative things and it’s all turning into positive. Fantastic.”

“You can get your voices heard. Trustworthy

“It’s welcoming, everyones kind and nice. Memorable”

“If you have any worries big or small you can always go to a member of staff and they really help you. Understanding

“The school really helps people with all different kinds of issues whether they are mental health or even something like autism. Helpful

All this change in months, not years and without any unnecessary intervention from politicians or councilors.

Mr Smith knows the school is not there yet but it is certainly on its way and he truly believes within 18 months the words ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ will be used by inspectors.

He said:

“This is a very exciting time to be part of Thomas Bennett Community College. The whole community has my absolute reassurance that I am both committed and determined to ensuring that areas requiring improvement are being addressed and the rapid improvement continues. I will also build of the many strengths highlighted in the detail of the report, with the support of staff, students, parents and the Trust we will bring about sustained improvement for the benefit of Thomas Bennett Community College and its community”.

Exciting times it is and none more so than for the pupils themselves. But what comes out of all this more than anything, more than the reports and the PR that accompanies this sort of change is the true belief and support that change is happening and whilst it is fast and dramatic, it is in the description of numerous pupils ‘AMAZING’.

The only way to sum this all up is to leave you with the words of one pupil who said:

“If you want your child to become such an amazing person and to grow then Thomas Bennett is the school for you!”

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