Before she was even accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious ballet schools, Constance Bailey’s audition immediately made her feel different.
“Everyone else arrived in these really fancy cars – there were all these BMWs – and they had really nice leotards,” said the 13-year-old, who was wearing her old ballet uniform underneath a secondhand tracksuit.
It is only 85 miles from Constance’s home on the Seacroft estate in Leeds to The Hammond School in Chester, but the journey had taken more than three and a half hours and involved two trains, two buses and a walk down a dual carriageway.
On arrival, she and her mum, Laura, were asked to take lateral flow tests and told to wait in their car for the results. It was mid-lockdown, and all the cafes were shut. They shivered on a bench. “It was stressful and humiliating,” said Laura. “I felt like I had let my daughter down badly.”
A talented dancer who was diagnosed with autism at nursery, Constance was soon accepted at the Hammond, one of only four dance boarding schools in England. She is supposed to start in September, but won’t unless she can raise tens of thousands of pounds towards her fees.
Laura is a single parent who earns about £20,000 a year as a PA in the NHS. The annual fees to board at the Hammond amount to just shy of £29,000. Each year, the government funds a small number of bursaries at dance and drama schools, but the Hammond gave them all to year 7s, whereas Constance would be joining in year 9.
When Laura explained that she could not possibly afford the fees, the Hammond offered assistance if she could find half the money. She immediately started a crowdfunder and has been petitioning everyone from her MP, Richard Burgon, to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to ask why “poor people like us” are locked out of the best performing arts schools.
It cost £45 just to audition, and it was another £160 to reserve Constance’s place – a sum Laura could only afford thanks to a gift from her aunt. Money has been tight ever since Constance was a baby, when Laura’s marriage broke down and she was diagnosed with thyroid and lymph node cancer. She underwent treatment for several years and was unable to work. More recently she has had six bouts of sepsis.
The Billy Elliot dream has felt out of reach for working-class families in 2021, said Laura. “It feels very elitist, and that’s never a phrase I thought I would use. I’ll fit in with anybody – that comes with being a PA – but it turns out that’s not enough. It turns out you need to have money, to have gone to the right school.”
While Billy Elliot came from a coal mining village in the north-east, Constance lives in social housing on the most deprived housing estate in Leeds. Though it has improved a lot in recent years, Seacroft is still known for its high levels of crime and unemployment, low income, poor education and poor health.
Constance attends a comprehensive on the other side of Leeds, receiving extra support for her autism and language disorder. Though bright and thoughtful, sometimes her sentences come out in the wrong order. Laura describes her as “classically female autistic, in that she is a bit away with the fairies at times, and for someone who loves performing, she doesn’t like being in crowded spaces. She prefers to be on stage”.
Her school has 1,600 pupils – a lot for someone who dislikes crowds. The Hammond has just over 300 and Laura believes Constance will feel more confident in smaller classes among kindred spirits.
She has already won a scholarship to Leeds Grand Youth Theatre and is part of the Cecchetti Associates scheme, where the best young dancers in the country are taught by professionals once a month in Warrington. She dreams of devoting herself to dance full-time, and has wanted to become a ballerina ever since she saw The Nutcracker at the age of five. She studied routines on YouTube and watched as many ballets on Freeview as possible.
“She has seen the Northern Ballet live because they do £12 ‘nosebleeds’ seats, but the rest she has watched on Sky Arts,” said Laura, who is hoping someone will step in to help Constance achieve her dream.
“I know we are worlds apart from the other families [at the Hammond] – even a simple visit to the school demonstrated that – but when you see her dance, none of that matters,” said Laura.
Constance prefers not to dwell on the differences between herself and the other dancers: “At the end of the day it’s about the ballet, not the leotards and the BMWs.”