May 12, 2007 - In every child there are elements of genius – those special qualities that make a person unique – and for Nigel Le Page, that’s the best reason to get up every morning.
Nigel, National Director of Helen O’Grady Drama Academy, has spent the past 13 years working to provide the best environment for young people to develop themselves to find those individual strengths. It has been a long-term vocation, and his commitment to helping children of all backgrounds has brought sustainable growth of the Academy.
Father of two daughters, Nigel celebrated his 54th birthday when the 54th branch of the franchise was opened this year. Over 50 of these are in the UK, the others being in the Republic of Ireland, Spain, Malta and Dubai. More than 15,000 children each week attend the classes.
Nigel explains: “We work with a range of children and needs, from those who are extremely shy and who develop self-belief and confidence through to the extreme extroverts, who learn how to channel their boundless energies and cooperate more readily with other children.”
Through the Academy’s structured programme, a child can go from entry at five-years-old to the final year at 17 and never repeat a class routine. They gain confidence and communications skills through speech, movement, improvisation and theatre games.
Nigel says: “Most drama schools will have some sort of package for their teachers and most offer singing, dancing and acting. We are probably the only one that is purely focussed on a child’s self-development.”
“A child can also come in at any stage and not feel isolated. The Academy builds a very strong sense of community among its pupils. They learn mutual respect and tolerance. Our Northern Ireland branch is a real example of this, with 1,500 students, bringing together children from all backgrounds.”
The Academy now covers 60 per cent of the UK but the desire to expand this rare social enterprise has opened opportunities for people to take on the challenge of establishing branches in the rest of the country, particularly in the Midlands, North and South West. Nigel believes strongly that there is a need in the UK for another 30 branches, offering self-development to 20-24,000 children.
Those who take on the challenge will obviously enjoy working with children but Nigel also looks for commitment.
“Energy, enthusiasm and a desire to do something worthwhile are the most important qualities. Our franchisees have experience in working with children, preferably as a trained teacher or having worked in theatre and education.”
“Our youngest Principal is 21 now and she runs a large Helen O’Grady branch in Donegal and we have a broad age range of academy franchisees, up to the mid-50s, both male and female.”
Each Principal operates their branch in an area covering populations of 500,000 and the aim is to have 400/500 students per week. Principals earn more than they would in a school environment.
He says: “We encourage our teachers to treat the Academy as a local community project, learning what needs there are in the area, working with schools. We strongly emphasise with head teachers and staff that we are there to complement and not compete with them.”
This positive approach has had rewards. For example, at the beginning of the current school year, many head teachers were happy to distribute 1.3 million Academy introduction letters to parents.
There are also an increasing number of Academy branches that use school facilities and many more that go into schools for workshops.
The Academies also fulfil a need in schools as drama has increasingly been removed from the curriculum as pressure on timetables and budgets intensified. Schools also are unable to dedicate much creative class time to develop communication and confidence skills in their pupils.
“We happen to do this in a rare way. The Helen O’Grady methods are all non-competitive. For our children, there is no fear of failure. We have helped thousands of children since the Academy was launched.
“We teach children how to communicate effectively and develop a strong self-confidence.”
The success of the methods can be judged by the re-enrolment rates at the start of each term, which are often in excess of 80 per cent. Given that children now have more distractions than ever, this is a remarkable achievement.
Cooperation and community involvement is an extremely important foundation for all Academy activities and these are qualities that Nigel wished to develop when he trained as teacher, graduating in 1973. His first teaching role, in sport and English, in Guernsey was a challenging lesson.
He says: “I loved the teaching but very quickly found that the school politics of education were at odds with what I wanted to achieve. I think teachers say that quite often even nowadays!”
Change of direction was needed and for 15 years Nigel worked for the public services on Guernsey, finally as Chief Recreation Officer where he advised the Guernsey Recreation Committee on strategies for all indoor and outdoor facilities.
A chance meeting with a local businessman who planned to set up a Helen O’Grady Drama Academy network in the United States led to Nigel’s new vocation. Helen, a teacher and Australian TV presenter, had founded The Academy in Perth in 1979.
“I met Helen and her husband when they visited Guernsey and from that Helen decided to set up in the UK rather than the US.”
Nigel trained in Perth and launched a pilot scheme in 1994 with the guidance and support of Alison Manzanec who was executive Principal for Helen O’Grady in Australia
“If we could run a school in Guernsey, with a population of 60,000, we knew we could be successful. The Helen O’Grady Academy curriculum and teaching plans were well suited for adaptation to the UK teaching system.”
“What attracted me to working with Helen was the chance to work with children and teachers, to use my skills and knowledge in that way.
“It was also the unique approach Helen used. She had created a self-development programme for children, using drama as the creative environment. It was also very clear that there was a well structured curriculum, teaching plans and support structure.”
Nigel believes in the value of that long-term, structured support and has invested strongly over the past three years particularly in developing a Training Team that helps new academy leaders through their challenging early months and then support over the lifetime of a branch.
The Academy is now in 19 countries, and Nigel wants to open branches in another 10 countries over the next three years in the EU and Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC).
While the academies have been fulfilling needs of ex-patriate community children there is a growing focus on the Helen O’Grady system being used to aid teaching English as a second language, as well as self-development.
“This is rare, if not unique. It is an ideal creative space where children can develop themselves and their language abilities.”
View Company Website: http://www.helenogrady.co.uk