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 jessica and head

Jessica Wheeler, Principal of Elmhurst Ballet School, who, along with her staff, is guiding the school and its 192 pupils from around the world through the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish flu a century ago

Commemorating ten years in charge might warrant a glass of wine with colleagues, perhaps even a cake or two, but a global pandemic? Probably not something Jessica Wheeler had thought of to mark her ten years as Principal at Elmhurst Ballet School in Edgbaston.

But that is what the former dancer come educator was faced with running one of the country’s leading ballet schools which attracts promising young dancers from both Britain and around the world, and, to add to the challenge, with its national and international catchment area, most of the pupils are boarders.

And if that was not enough Jessica has two young children and, a positive test at her son’s school saw pupils sent home which meant for a while she was working from home looking after her own children as well as looking after another 192 in her school.

We are coming to the end of a year that has suffered the worst pandemic for a century and she is proud of how the school has coped in what she described as “the most stressful and traumatic time”.

Elmhurst has had two positive tests among staff, but luckily their involvement did not impact too much on other areas so their isolation did not comprise pupils and while the few pupils who have shown any COVID-19 symptoms are tested and isolated until results are known, there have been no new cases and the school has settled into a regime which has become, out of necessity, the abnormal norm.

All the pupils returned at the start of the current school year apart from one, who has remained in China, but she has been taught via Zoom and she will be arriving in the New Year, and for the rest classes continue within the alien world in which we are all compelled to live. 


Birmingham born Caitlin Godfrey, a year 12 student whose dream is to become a principal,

dancing ballet's iconic roles. Dance pictures: Johan Persson

When schools were forced to close teaching for the rest of Spring term and the whole of Summer term moved online. Jessica said: “We moved the entire teaching on to Zoom and Microsoft Teams and that was a massive effort. I think that was exhausting for the staff. Teaching over the internet is not the same as teaching in person so we did pretty well.”

Although Elmhurst follows the same academic curriculum as any other secondary school that is only part of the story; it is a ballet school producing dancers who will hopefully go on to dance with contemporary or classical ballet companies around the world or join the casts of West End musicals – and that needs training and the sort of physical demands that professional sport expects.

“We ran a ballet and strength and conditioning programme throughout the summer holidays. We were worried that if we didn't continue to train the students in some way shape or form throughout the holiday that they would come back not in as good a shape as we might have liked, and actually it's paid dividends because the dance staff were quite surprised what good physical shape students were when they returned in September.

“It was a really good starting point to start refining the classical technique and other genres. They were strong, they looked good and they had taken all that strength and conditioning work really seriously, so came back better than we could have hoped.”

With the majority of pupils boarders it makes life both easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Lower school pupils live on site so are one bubble, while sixth formers, who live off site, are another.


Ben Randall from Wolverhampton, a year 14 student enjoying life at Elmhurst who is striving to be both the best and the happiest dancer he can be

The school tries to keep bubbles apart as much as possible with different meal times, classes and assemblies and everyone wears masks moving around school, but not in classes.

“It has worked really well. We put in place a really robust risk assessment which we worked on during the summer holidays – 27 pages of how we are going to manage the school site, how are going to manage people, how we manage teaching and learning, all of those things and I think it's really helped.”

It is a closed community in a contained setting, a situation which sees Jessica having sympathy for fellow school heads working in very different situation. “We are quite cocooned here and most of our pupils stay here. We normally have a Leave Out weekend in the middle of November and we said to parents please leave your kids with us as much as possible and that is what they have done. Our parent body have been brilliant.”

The majority of students have been there for the entire time through lockdown but cocooning does have its drawbacks so the school has introduced a musical theatre programme at weekends to give pupils something different to do. Two year groups have worked on Wicked, another on Matilda.

“It was just something we could do to keep them buoyant, to give them fun and just keep them occupied as well as support for our staff, our boarding staff, who didn’t have the time off that they really should have had so it was a team effort.”

Sixth formers, living off site and used to going out and socialising, are feeling the restriction more but Elmhurst is trying to make the school operate as normally as possible. There are changes to meals times and assemblies and staff are on duty to manage the bubbles of course but classes and school life, as far as possible, are as they were.


Satsuki Ueda, a year 13 student who was learning only classical ballet in her native Japan but is now adding contemporary, jazz and flamenco to her repertoire along with performance opportunities

The cocooning and bubbles of boarders has had its effect on another group of pupils however; Jessica said: “It’s been a little tough for our day students as the COVID rules mean that they cannot mix with their friends in boarding houses as they used to. They have managed this really well.”

The biggest effect though has been on leavers, the Elmhurst graduates. In a normal year a couple may have gone on to university but of the 20 or so leavers each year 75-80 per cent would find work within dance companies, mainly in Europe – Elmhurst’s reputation is that good.

This year Jessica said some students have been lucky and joined the companies which had offered them jobs but others have had contracts cancelled as COVID has taken its toll.

Jessica said: “We said don’t worry we will look after you and so we put on a programme for those students who have been affected by the pandemic and they are still training with us to maintain their audition fitness and in return they are doing some light work around the school with a variety of departments.

“It is really important for us that those students in such a difficult time, felt supported. We have seven or eight young people who are just training day in and day out and they are really positive. They have their moments when they wonder if it is ever going to happen, but they are really doing well and are so resilient.”

Another of COVID’s victims is the company Elmhurst started three years ago as a bridge between school concerts – even the high class ones at Elmhurst – and the much different world of professional dance. The Elmhurst Ballet Company helped to give some experience of dancing for a living with performances at Elmhurst and tours to Sadler’s Wells in London. It helped prepare final year students for the big step from friendly school to the much harsher commercial world of dance. 

It has had two successful years but then came 2020. A show is being worked on for February but that will be for an audience of their peers, the Elmhurst cocoon, but with some streaming, and there are plans for a summer show with a return to a semblance of normality with an outside audience.

The school breaks up for Christmas this week to end a tumultuous year, a year of navigating ever changing problems, and one, which by finding solutions, Elmhurst can count as a success and there is even a glimmer of a silver lining - Jessica said: “We’re having to navigate lots of new ways of working but it's been interesting. I think there will be things where we think ‘you know what that works really well’ so we will keep up with that.”

Roger Clarke   


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