Tuesday, February 24, 2009

UK: Latest weapon in War on Fat — dancing classes in school

Sounds harmless and provides a useful social skill

Ballroom dancing is set to become the latest craze in classrooms across Britain, as part of an effort to harness the success of the television show Strictly Come Dancing to combat childhood obesity. In the scheme to be launched tomorrow, schoolchildren in both primary and secondary schools will take part in Strictly Come Dancing-style sessions in school hours. The scheme, which will be piloted in 26 schools across the country, aims at improving youngsters’ health and self-esteem as they learn a range of dance styles. If it proves successful, it will be offered to all schools nationwide from this summer, and slotted into the national curriculum as part of the PE syllabus. Two teachers at each participating school will themselves be given lessons in ballroom dancing techniques so they can lead the sessions. The youngsters will then be put through their paces as they attempt the cha-cha-cha, waltz, jive, salsa and quick step – and other styles of ballroom and Latin dancing.

It will be launched by two of the professional dancers who have partnered celebrities on the BBC show, Darren Bennett and Lilia Kopylova. Darren partnered the actress Jill Halfpenny when she won the competition in 2004, and Lilia danced with the rugby player Matt Dawson – who lost to cricketer Mark Ramprakash in the finals of the 2006 television series. Darren, who first learnt to dance when he was just six years old, said: “Not everyone who learns ballroom dancing is going to take it up as a profession and win trophies, but that’s not the point. “It’s about having fun, getting fit and mixing socially with your peers.” The scheme is being launched by the Aldridge Foundation – an educational foundation which is planning sponsorship of two of the Government’s flagship academies – and City Limits Education.

The chairman of the Aldridge Foundation, Rod Aldridge, said the scheme was “about inspiring the nation’s young people to get off their feet to enjoy the physical exercise and confidence you can gain from ballroom dancing. “Ballroom dancing used to be seen as something old-fashioned and inaccessible – but by making it part of the national curriculum we can break down those barriers and give young people from all backgrounds the chance to benefit.” Mr Aldridge, who founded the Capita Group outsourcing business in 1984, and set up the foundation to concentrate on charitable activities after quitting as the group’s chairman in 2006, spoke of how learning to dance had changed his life.

“I was not particularly good at school. I didn’t do very well,” he said. “I was good at sport, though, and my father and mother introduced me to dance. My confidence and self-esteem were massively high as a result of being able to do it. “Dance wasn’t something a young lad should be doing in those days because it was considered a bit out of character. I did it through a dance school that my mother introduced me to. “Hopefully, those days have changed, now that Strictly Come Dancing has become so popular. I danced competitively until my early twenties and then – sadly – gave it up,” he said.

However, as a special surprise for his 60th birthday party, he invited Darren and Lilia – and trained with Lilia so he could stun guests by putting on a dance show. “It was from there that this started,” Mr Aldridge said.

The introduction of the scheme in primary and secondary schools follows an exhortation from the Health Secretary Alan Johnson for adults to consider taking dance classes as a means to improve their health and fitness and crack down on obesity. The scheme, called “Essentially Dance”, also mirrors a project pioneered in New York public schools, which was featured in the film Take The Lead starring Antonio Banderas. Academic experts who evaluated that project found that engaging young people in the discipline of ballroom dance gave students who struggled academically an outlet of expression that boosted their self-esteem, confidence and improved classroom behaviour.

The UK project will be evaluated by researchers at Roehampton University. Some of the schools involved in the pilot scheme have already been putting pupils through their paces in preparation for tomorrow’s launch.


Virtual universities a flop

American astronomer Clifford Stoll believes that "techies" like himself have a responsibility to challenge the hype surrounding computers. And if anyone is qualified to do so, it is Stoll: he is one of the pioneers of the internet. The former scientist at the University of California, Berkeley campus, has spent a good part of his career questioning the role of computers in the classroom. In his 2000 New York Times best-seller, High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian, Stoll predicted that virtual universities set up in the dotcom boom would flop.

Although Stoll often felt that he was a lone voice in challenging the viability of the new online university, he now feels vindicated. "I was right," he tells The Sunday Age from his home in San Francisco.

Despite many commentators such as US management guru Peter Drucker saying that "bricks and mortar" universities would disappear within 30 years, there's no sign they are vanishing. In fact, many universities have plans to update and expand their campuses. Monash University is spending $85 million on a new law building to allow the law faculty to move from its Clayton campus to Caulfield, and the University of Sydney has an $800 million program to renew and rebuild campuses.

But the virtual universities that were set up during the dotcom boom have almost all disappeared. Britain's virtual university, UKeU, which was set up in 2000 with £62 million ($A138 million) of government money, has folded.

Fathom, launched by Columbia University in association with 14 other universities, libraries and museums, is another casualty, as are New York University Online and AllLearn, a non-profit venture between Oxford, Yale and Stanford universities. None of the virtual universities could get enough enrolments, and some were plunged into debt.

Universitas 21 Global, which former Melbourne University vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert spearheaded, is still going and offers business courses and training for company employees. But its original predictions for enrolments and profit gains were wildly optimistic, and some universities have pulled out of the venture.

All along, Stoll has maintained that students want social interaction. "There's the interaction with other students. It isn't just memorable; it's really the purpose of living. The reason we go to college or even elementary school is to be closer to others, to develop friendships. I'm sure I'm like you. I went to college thinking, 'Hey, this is going to be a weird experience'," Stoll says.

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