She swapped the classrooms of some of London’s toughest comprehensives to take over a prestigious Birmingham ballet school.
But Elmhurst School for Dance principal Jessica Ward isn’t quite ready for the quiet life just yet.
The former dancer-turned teacher is on a now on a mission to put the Edgbaston school on the map by working with other schools and in the community.
Elmhurst School for Dance, in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet, is the UK’s oldest vocational classical ballet school, and moved from Surrey in 2005. Only the cream of Britain’s young ballet talent make it through the doors of the school, where students combine dance lessons and academic study six days a week.
The school, in Bristol Road, is renowned for the quality of its dancers, many of whom go on to join the Birmingham Royal Ballet and other companies across the globe.
But despite the school’s standing in the international dance community, Ms Ward said she was keen to dispel the myth that independent schools were “ivory towers”.
Ms Ward, who has been at the school for almost two years, said: “I’ve come in and opened it up. My test is when I get in a cab from New Street and ask if the driver has ever heard of Elmhurst.
“You can be in Germany and people know us but you can go into the city centre and they don’t.
“I think we are becoming less of a hidden gem and are becoming better known but there is still more work to be done.”
Ms Ward’s dance career was cut short due to injury and she went on to teach after earning a BA and postgraduate qualifications. In 2000, she was offered a job as head of dance at the notorious Islington Green School in London.
Students from the comprehensive featured on the 1979 Pink Floyd hit Another Brick in the Wall and Tony Blair refused to send his sons to the school when they lived in the North London borough.
Ms Ward said: “Although it was surrounded by million pound houses it recruited from one of the biggest council estates in Europe. I was appointed part-time head of dance, and it was absolute madness – attendance was awful.
“I remember seven teachers left in my first week, I cried every day.
“When I got there the kids had half-hour dance lessons. They would come into my studio, which was one of those black drama boxes with a carpet over a concrete floor, and it was really challenging.”
By the end of her six-year stint at the school, Ms Ward had worked her way up to assistant head teacher and revolutionised performing arts with a new studio, complete with sprung floors and mirrors. Dance became one of the school’s most-oversubscribed subjects and pupil attendance soared.
Ms Ward added: “I had a boys’ dance company with 40 boys in it, we did loads of cross-curricular projects where we taught maths and science through dance to engage kids in their learning.
“We also looked at how dance impacted on attendance. The days the students had dance, attendance was at its peak.”
Ms Ward was then recruited to join a leadership team to turn around a failing school in North London which was plagued with gang problems.
“I learned huge amounts there,” she said. “One of my babies was attendance. It was literally going and knocking on doors getting kids into school in the mornings.”
Ms Ward was appointed principal of Elmhurst in autumn 2010 and has since held open days for local headteachers.
She is also keen to increase the number of applicants from youngsters in the West Midlands and said her time at inner-city schools proved how inspiring dance could be. She said: “Dance is so engaging as an activity.
‘‘Classical dance can be quite off-putting to young people but when they see it close up, they realise the physical challenge of it.
“A lot of the media hype over the past few years has done us a great service.
“Sometimes the classical industry has pooh-poohed that but we should celebrate it. Billy Elliot, Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor, all of those have really engaged young people with dance, and that is just the start.”