A a child, my dream was to become a ballet dancer. This was all that I wanted to do. I had what you might call a ‘total growth mindset’ around dancing. I trained for hours each night after school. I practised my pointe work until my toes bled. At the age of sixteen I swept out of the school gates as fast as I could, and went to study at the Central School of Ballet. My teachers included the wonderful, inspirational Christopher Gable. Dance is a highly competitive field. To get to the top, it is not enough just to work hard, you need the right body as well. Some of my fellow students had beautifully arched feet, which looked perfect in pointe shoes. I did not. Some of my fellow students could do the side splits or hold an arabesque at 120 degrees or more. I could not. (Believe me, this was not for lack of trying.) In the end, injury forced my life down a different pathway. But even if it hadn’t, I would never have been Darcey Bussell or Sylvie Guillem. I was corps de ballet or cruise ship material, not soloist or prima ballerina.
I love the idea that effort is more important than attainment. However, I have some niggling concerns about the way that children and young people may interpret this message. When they hear us say ‘you’ll get better at this if you work harder’, will they hear ‘you didn’t get to the top because you didn’t try hard enough’? I’m also troubled about the messages we may send to children with SEND. For some children, that tiny step forwards took a massive effort of will. For others, it was as natural as breathing. I was a nervous child, conscientious about my school work, desperate to do well. The idea that I’d get to the top as a dancer if only I was thinner, or worked harder, was tempting to believe. This led to some psychological problems that took a good few years post-dancing to overcome. My son said to me the other night that he didn’t want to move up to the top maths set, because he didn’t want the ‘stress and pressure of being a top set kid’. And while part of me thought ‘Don’t be so lazy!’, another part of me thought back to myself as a child, and wondered whether that wasn’t a pretty sensible attitude to take.