The real school of rock

Elliott School is a struggling comprehensive in south London. But it has an astonishing record in nurturing a diverse range of avant-garde pop stars. Jonathan Brown and Lucy Kinnear report

For a long time, it seemed the most famous musician likely to emerge from the Elliott School in the unromantic London suburb of Putney Heath was the late Matt Monro, the quintessential British crooner.

He enjoyed fleeting fame in the 1950s as "The Singing Bus Driver", a nickname bestowed on him because of his pre-celebrity stewardship of the No 27 from Highgate to Teddington. He was undoubtedly talented, but he died in 1985, and was hardly regarded as a role model for today's wannabe musical stars.

Yet in recent years, Elliott has been busy churning out a dizzying array of musical talent at the street-credible end of the music industry, despite its being a large, urban, multi-ethnic comprehensive in Wandsworth with more than its fair share of challenges.

Thus far, the school has largely escaped the media's attention, unlike the scrutiny received by the Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology, a few miles down the A23 in Croydon, which has Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash, Leona Lewis and Adele among its old girls.

Chief among the music stars to have passed through Elliott are Hot Chip, the Mercury Prize-shortlisted electropop combo which was formed by the former Elliott pupils Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard in 2000. They have since gone on to produce three albums to enthusiastic critical acclaim. Now signed to EMI, they are being tipped to be one of the hottest acts of 2008.

Another former student is William Bevan, aka Burial, a dubstar artist who enjoys a cult dancefloor following and who likes to retain a Banksy-like anonymity. Then there is the Folktronica pioneer Kieran Hebden, who records as Four Tet and has worked with artists including Radiohead and Bloc Party, the respected nu-folk singer Adem Ihan and the Mercury Prize-nominated jazz and classical musician Emma Smith.

Throw in a smattering of former members of the So Solid Crew, two musicians from the indie band The Maccabees, and Herman Li, guitarist with the million-selling power metal outfit DragonForce, and you have an emerging stable of stars that can trace much of its inspiration back to the days of the old south London schoolyard.

Yet, if the critics are to be believed, it is something of a minor miracle that schools are able to generate any level of talent at all. Despite a series of much vaunted Government initiatives and high-profile support for the creative industries, some 26,000 children are on waiting lists to learn a musical instrument with their local authority. ]

Recent research suggested some councils are spending as little as £1.15 per child on music, putting yet more pressure on already hard-pressed schools to keep up the nation's musical education. And to those not in the know, Elliott School might appear an unpromising place to start a musical career. The school's recent Ofsted report judged the school to be "performing significantly less well than in all the circumstances it could reasonably be expected to perform," before issuing a notice to improve. It is running a budget deficit and the music department is suffering a severe shortage of instruments.

Frank Marshall, the school's head of music, is engaged in rounds of fundraising and efforts to encourage artists to come into the classroom to work alongside his talented teachers. And yet the irrepressible desire to make music continues to pulse through the school.

According to Mr Marshall, who is a classically trained church organist who taught himself guitar and drums to survive the rigours of teaching in a tough urban comprehensive, it is the positive peer pressure all around coupled with officially sanctioned use of school space to simply make a noise that provides the recipe for success.

"At the time that Hot Chip were here, there were a number of highly talented musicians who already had their own bands in school. They played in local clubs from an early age," he recalls. "There was a drive from my perspective towards originality – towards doing something different, towards creativity. I would say, 'Don't use that old chord pattern which has been hacked out a thousand times before – try throwing in a seventh chord or something unexpected'."

It is a piece of advice which he happily observes in "Ready For The Floor", Hot Chip's latest single, with its multiple key changes and compelling chord progressions. Like all schools, music is compulsory only until year nine, but there remain vibrant GCSE and A-level groups. A significant number of pupils also go on to study music at university. Mr Marshall says he teaches traditional techniques in lessons, but also sees himself as a facilitator.

"When you get enough people making music, they start feeding off each other. It just snowballs. We put on a lot of concerts both in and out of school, with other schools. We played festivals bringing together other musicians from other schools with different characters. Here you could get a lot of ideas swapped between musicians," he says.

Adem Ihan, whose new album, Takes, is released in the summer, recalls being surrounded by "truly inspirational teachers and students" during his time at Elliott. And because there were so many students into the same kind of music, they didn't get singled out for their "skinny jeans and weird taste in music".

"There was a sense that you weren't alone if you were different. It just so happened that there was a whole bunch of us. We'd push the tables aside and make a racket, until the neighbours came and complained," he remembers.

"Sometimes there weren't even enough cables or the drums would be shabby, but we were never denied the use of anything. They just let us get on with it and encouraged us to be creative.

"There were enough teachers there who were really fantastic at making students feel that they could be independent and do things for themselves. They picked up on the excitement of us all."

Herman Li recalls being allowed to just get on with his passion, free from any interference from teachers or pupils.

"At lunchtime I used to just grab my guitar and play. I never bothered with football or anything like that. Elliott School was the beginning of an endless journey for me. You learn something new everyday. I'm still learning now."

Joe Goddard describes the same culture of tolerance. "There was a spirit: if you want to do something just go and do it. You didn't need permission."

For Mr Marshall, the suggestion that music should remain somehow a middle-class preserve is absurdly prejudiced, though he did admit to watching with a certain empathy the heroic efforts of the TV choirmaster Gareth Malone as he sought to overcome the powerful reluctance of teenage lads to break into song in his BBC 2 series, The Choir: Boys Don't Sing. "If you have a good student and a good teacher, it doesn't matter where you are from," he says. "If you have someone who wants to learn and someone who wants to teach, you will be successful. I don't think that because a student goes to a London comprehensive, rather than a private school, they cannot make really good music. It doesn't have to have a negative effect on their education."

Not that teaching music is always easy. The key to successful music teaching is "patience and having the right personality – how much you insist on certain things, how much you can enthuse kids.

"It can be very difficult when you have students sitting in front of 30 books so it is certainly going to be challenge when they are sitting in front of 30 xylophones," he says. The school is now in the middle of rehearsals for the annual production. This year it is the classic 1970s orphan tear jerker Annie – hardly the kind of thing you might expect to inspire a new generation of electro-poppers, metalheads or nu-ravers.

But Mr Marshall is unapologetic. "If you are a musician, you should be able to play anything – especially if it is how you are going to make your living," he says. As a result, the musical culture of the school will this term range from the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, to Sting, to a GCSE class that is engaged in the process of sampling how to play the recorder, that humble music-lesson staple.

It seems to be a winning formula. Adem Ihan looks back on his school days as the passport to his current status as a professional musician.

"When I first arrived at the school, I remember seeing people in the years above who were still only 13 years old but who were already in bands. It got me thinking, 'God I can so do that. I'm just like that'."

Like many of his peers he was. And he did.

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