Fame Academy: The Brit School
The Brit School in Croydon has been a conveyor belt for indie-music success - churning out such diverse and original talents as The Kooks, Amy Winehouse and Katie Melua. But how do they do it? And why are their alumni so embarrassed about where they went to school?
Sunday 28 January 2007
The easiest way to locate the Brit School, deep in the faceless suburbia of south London, is this: take a train from London Bridge, disembark at Selhurst and follow the teen wearing bright-yellow drainpipe jeans, a leather motorcycle jacket and bird's-nest hairstyle. The school is no more than a five-minute strut from the station.
The Brit School is an educational establishment unlike any other and so are its pupils and staff, its aspirations and achievements. Funded by the Department for Education and Skills, but independent of LEA control, is has also received, for the past 15 years, sponsorship from the Brit Trust, the same organisation that dishes out gongs to the starlets and rebels of the UK's booming music industry each February.
For parents eyeing the competitive GCSE results, the Brit School has an enviable academic record. In 2006, 93 per cent of pupils gained five or more "A" to "C" grades. What the school's prospectus omits to mention is that a disproportionate number of its alumni are household names in the kind of household where NME posters adorn bedroom walls and parents bang on the ceiling.
Performers including Amy Winehouse, The Kooks, Katie Melua, Floetry, Dane Bowers, The Feeling, The Noisettes, Imogen Heap and the 2006 Christmas Number One holder, Leona Lewis, were all tutored at the Brit School, and more than 60 per cent of the school's leavers go on to work in the creative industries. The alumni are notable as much for their diversity as for their commercial achievements. You may not enjoy the music of, say, Heap or Melua, but only the most cloth-eared music critic would argue that they aren't original, especially when set against the index of by-numbers chart acts. What their time at the Brit School really taught them was not how to be pop stars, but how to be themselves.
In the Brit School, there is always something going on - and it's usually quite loud. The site has two main buildings: a redbrick former girls' high built in 1907 and doodlebugged during the Second World War, and, across the recreation ground, an oblong modernist pavilion with a high glass-fronted atrium, in the corner of which, every day, a scrum of teenagers coagulates.
They hunch over piles of bags, coats and amplifiers, and they strum guitars, tootle on a flute or bash some bongos and jam along; others dance effervescently and the sound of song flows through the corridors. The customary greeting is a deep and meaningful hug. Jeans are worn either spray-on tight, or voluminous and tent-like, and everyone has extraordinary hair. There are more growing stars here than on the ceiling of a planetarium. The sight of a teenage boy in a leotard flexing hamstrings against a coffee machine is not uncommon, nor is there anything exceptional about a trio of theatre students improvising a Shakespearean tableau adjacent to the sandwich bar. Is this a dagger I see before me? If so, you could cut the atmosphere of diffuse, gleeful creativity with an imaginary knife.
"We used to worry about what was going on in the corridors," says Jacqui Pick, deputy head principal. "Usually some mischief. But here it's usually a rehearsal. Or a rehearsal for mischief." (omega)
At any time, 850 pupils from within a one-hour commute around the school are in attendance, and they are taught a combination of National Curriculum academia, and "strand" studies in the theory and practice of performing arts, creative technology and media. Pupils enter at 14 or 16, after going through a selection process of interviews, workshops and performances. Students work towards GCSEs, A- or AS-Level, or BTEC qualifications across a spectrum of creative vocations: music, theatre and dance, and musical theatre, which combines all three; plus media, technical theatre and visual arts and design. The social and ethnic profile of the student body is typical of inner-London comprehensives, but unlike other establishments linked to the creative industries - "talent" schools such as Italia Conti or Anna Scher - the school is state-funded and free to pupils. Consequently, it is oversubscribed - only one in three applicants gains a place.
It is very easy to see why teachers are forced to throw students out at the end of the school day, and why even the teachers themselves look forward to coming here every morning. Adrian Packer, head of the musical theatre department, has been at the school for nine years and endures a "stupidly long" commute from Medway in Kent. "I keep thinking, I've been here almost a decade," he says. "I should leave. But I can't."
It's also easy to draw comparisons with Alan Parker's Fame, the 1980 film about the New York High School for the Performing Arts in which the dance instructor tells her pupils: "You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well fame costs. And right here is where you start paying - in sweat."
But the reality is that most Brit School students understand that Melua-sized opportunity may not come knocking in their lives. Even with the catalogue of celebrity talent above, only a tiny minority of students will achieve fame as it is commonly understood.
Typically, Brit School entrants come from schools lacking resources to fully develop their creative aptitudes. Put through two or four years of scholarship in their chosen strand, many downscale their ambitions and leave in search of a nice steady job in the creative industries. It's also a common experience for creatively orientated kids to locate their inner boffin at the school and leave with an ambition to become criminologists or scientists.
In fact it's probably accurate to say that fame is a by-product of the school's purpose rather than its aim. In a world increasingly dominated by celebrity culture the school's staff, under principal Nick Williams, work to create a climate in which creativity is valued and developed for its own sake, not just with fame or commercial success in mind.
It appears to be working. "I'd say fame is one of the worst things about Britain, being famous for being famous," says Freddy, 19, a music-strand leaver now studying broadcast at a nearby college. "I never wanted to be a celebrity. Once you're pigeonholed as a celeb, you can't get out of it. There's nothing you can do for the rest of your life that won't be watched or analysed by everyone." Freddy has felt the limelight, but knows his vocation lies behind the scenes.
In addition to developing pupils' skills in dance, theatre, music, art and production, the school teaches the mechanics and economics of the entertainment industry - everything from agenting to copyright law - to provide the would-be artist with the fundamentals of business knowledge for a career in an insecure, ultra-competitive field. It also emphasises that not all famous people are creative, and that only a fraction of creativity leads to fame and, quite apart from that, that behind every Leona Lewis or Amy Winehouse is an army of personnel in technical production, administration and management - roles that require a sympathy, at the very least, for the creative arts.
"We took a while getting to grips with how to balance the aspirations of an entrepreneurial industry against the formal requirements of education," says Williams, the brisk and energetic principal. "We've gone through periods of getting one better than the other. We realised there was no point producing students who may be really talented musicians and actors, but were insufficiently well educated in the wider sense. We've worked hard in the last five years to make sure that any student who comes into the school can genuinely leave here with a choice to pursue a dream, or to decide to try something else."
The strategy solves the parent's eternal dilemma, requiting their wish to encourage their children's dreams at the same time as providing young Kylie or Lemar with a solid academic fallback should the big contract fail to emerge and the dream implode.
Whereas many schools struggle to stimulate pupils' enthusiasm, Brit staff find themselves with the opposite problem: "The other thing is how you dampen aspiration," Williams says. "Students think that you expect them to want to be famous. It's just a view that has something to do with celebrity culture or with what a fame school is, and we aren't any of those things. We almost have to say to pupils, 'We don't expect you to be successful.' We get their feet on the ground and make them realistic. It comes up at the moment because of Leona Lewis. People say we're just a way of giving people a leg up in the industry, and that's not true.
"Katie Melua and Amy Winehouse are two very different people - the one thing they have in common is that there isn't anyone who is exactly like (omega) them. They're not factory farmed. What we do is attract people into the school who are creative - that means things will happen."
And happen they do. Visitors can wander the workshops, classrooms, the extensive recording suites and the huge, fully equipped theatre, and detect again and again that Ready Brek outline of emergent starriness in the teenagers who bounce past. They are more likely to be the huggy theatrical type, the limber, body- conscious dancer sort or the trenchcoated, artsy introvert than the sportsman or the swot. Rowan Griffiths, head of PE, says there is an enthusiastic uptake of gym facilities among theatre students who want a strong physical presence and kids in drainpipes seeking to be fit enough to jump around on stage with a guitar. Every school probably has a minority of pupils such as this, but at the Brit School the minority type forms the majority - the Brit school type is what Packer calls the "the non-type. The school fits round their personality, rather than asking them to fit their personality round the school."
Winehouse, Packer remembers, was a case in point. Instructing the talented but wayward chanteuse was "exciting, but nerve-wracking. She was an artist from the age of 16, and she wasn't exactly suited to being institutionalised." On her single "Rehab", Winehouse sings how she "Didn't get a lot in class," but the Brit thing appears embedded in her DNA: she was back here last night, playing an unplugged foyer gig to piles of kids and coats.
Melua "had a very particular talent," remembers Conor Doherty, from the music department. "She sold seven million albums, and that's encouraging - something the kids can aspire to. But it's not always obvious who's very talented at first."
Even given that only a few of the Brit School pupils will lay siege to the Christmas Number One or sell 7m CDs, visitors cannot help wondering whether there is another Melua, a Kook or two, or perhaps the new Dane Bowers, at this moment limbering up in the cafeteria, or perhaps applying Brechtian techniques in a broadcast media class. It's that kind of place - where talent loiters in the corridors as mischief did in Grange Hill. There is electricity in the air.
Is it possible, I press Williams, to spot the X-Factor pupil the moment he or she first crashes through the double doors in yellow drainpipes? "No," he says.
The Brit School's music strand tends to make more noise - figuratively and literally - than any other department. Solo artists, duos, trios and bands form, split up and regroup in different shapes - all in the name of education. The current hot names, according to canteen buzz, are R U Twin?, Civilian, Jenner's Field, Fred & Ben, Justine's Dilemma, Adele or the Daisy Sweethearts.
As much happens in the corridor as it does in the classroom - for the post-GCSE pupils at least - and there is no bell announcing the beginning of breaktime or lessons, but it is also far from a creative free-for-all or an easy ride for the creatively minded layabout. "The kids have to be versatile," says Packer. "In one class they'll be doing some Brechtian theatre on the nature of Britishness, the next will be a choral workshop, and they will focus on speech. There's no time to get complacent."
In the past year, the competing strands worked together to produce musical-theatre pieces of staggering scope and ambition, incorporating dance, music, theatre and art as well as hundreds of pupil-hours of technical production. A revue called Motown - a History of Soul toured to the Roundhouse in Camden as, last year, did the school's live version of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
This kind of thing may stick in the craw of pop- culture critics who believe rock'n'roll, and artistry more broadly, should be forged through adversity, rather than nurtured in a collaborative, tutored environment such as secondary school. Williams rejects the notion that rock should be terrorising the staff room rather than featuring on the syllabus.
"We acknowledge that when kids leave here and find their way their experiences might be harsher, edgier or more difficult. We see no purpose in treating young people in a competitive way. Lots of bands don't want to talk about coming from the Brit School, and the reason is obvious - if you're in a band, you don't want people to feel that somehow, someone allowed you to do that. I'm really sanguine about people who leave the school and say, I did this, it's nothing to do with where I went to school."
Disproving the prejudice that no great artist ever came out of an art school, this also touches on a broader question. Like a kind of 1970s experiment in liberal education gone spectacularly right, the Brit School's track record confronts certain traditional perspectives on the role of education. "Margaret Thatcher famously remarked she didn't want a school for unemployed artists," Williams says. "We've been able to prove that view wrong by what we do. Economically, creatively and educationally it makes sense. We're cheaper to the economy than lots of other things - we turn over £250,000 in box-office receipts every year."
What certainly has changed since the 1970s is that the Treasury, among others, has understood the importance of creativity to Britain's new economic destiny. The creative industries are among the (omega) fastest-growing in the British economy. Fame may be a generational aspiration, but in a competitive world it is also a marketable commodity. Exportable intellectual property in design, music, fashion, television, theatre, advertising and art often begins its alchemy in the teenager's urge to self-express. "We're delivering that in spades," Williams says.
Similarly, recent thinking in big business has emphasised creativity, collaboration and openness as key to improving working practices. This is nine-to-five stuff for Brit School staff who encourage pupils to find links between academic and arts disciplines, by exploring, say, black history, through the medium of physical theatre.
On an average day for the unaverage pupil, however, these imperatives are understandably remote. It is common to find pupils with an exceptionally focused idea of what they would like to do.
"I'm not gonna lie, I came here because I wanted to be famous," says Stacey, a singer in the Aretha Franklin tradition who is forging a career interpreting the standards at weddings and funerals. "I was never the academic type. When I heard about Brit, I thought, this is my chance to do what I want to do. I was always making noise everywhere. The Brit School has encouraged me to be confident. Plus, the school is so random - there is every type of person here and you appreciate what everyone brings to the table."
Others, in this supertropical greenhouse for aspiration, discover talents they never knew they had, and are faced with a profusion of choices. Elliot, 16, from Peckham, dresses in crisp sportswear and fresh Nikes, the spit of a young Will Smith. He showed promise in his music GCSE at his former school in Pimlico, but upon gaining a place at the Brit decided against a career in what he now views as "stereotypical youth rapping". "Sometimes people don't understand what I'm trying to be," he declares. "I had to prove who I am - I'm here for theatre."
"It's a different atmosphere here," he nods, "and the realisation was extreme. Pimlico made me what I am - but the Brit School made me what I want to be" _ though he is as yet uncertain whether that means becoming an actor, director or historian. Elliot wrote, directed, produced and sold-out a play called Purple Sky which incorporated physical-theatre techniques and mask work and was based on his dad's experience of being chased by skinheads in the 1970s.
Elliot, in turn, ascribes his new passion for history to the energies of the school's highly animated history teacher, Derek Moir, a former punk rocker from Perth who enlivens the study of the past with references to Siouxsie & The Banshees. A youthful fortysomething, Moir enjoyed minor celebrity 20 years ago when his frenetic and angry indie band was fêted by John Peel, but today his energies are concentrated on the aspirations of others. "I have massive empathy for the kids," he says. "Our band were indie punk rock. Celebrity did not exist then. We were doing it for the kids - and I'm still doing it for the kids."
At a rehearsal in the mirrored dance studio upstairs we meet 17-year-old Bea, who choreographed a jazz- dance piece on the Seven Deadly Sins - Dante's Inferno meets Guys and Dolls on the set of a Beyoncé promo. Dancers leap, writhe and plié about to a flamenco track, a Kano grime anthem, and the room erupts into a crazy freestyle when The Prodigy's "Firestarter" booms through the bassbins.
In the recording studio we meet Joe, a chiselled and handsome 17-year-old singer whose throaty jazz vocals are a dead soundalike for Georgie Fame, an artist he has never heard of. He is working with a transparently gifted polymath called Elan, a Hendrix nut who is gradually getting her head, not to mention her hands, round the 18-string sitar she was given for Christmas. Often to be found strumming plangently in the foyer is Georgia, 17, whose passion for the Incredible String Band, Pentangle and Fairport Convention you would never guess if you knew her dad was in a certain, very successful 1990s dance-music act. She arrived in Selhurst intending to become an actor, discovered the guitars and now hopes to study ethnomusicology at university.
It becomes very clear that the Brit School is no fame academy, school of rock or talent farm, any more than St Trinian's was an al-Qa'ida training camp. Rather, its uniqueness is that it is a college for creativity that provides a platform for the metamorphosis of raw teen talent. The birthright of every teenager is to search for him or herself in the dress rehearsal for adult life, and when academic results are as good as the Brit School's, who's to argue that doing so through experimental theatre, heavy-metal media, or grime ballet is inferior to the three Rs? Equally, the Brit School's successes reflect its intimate understanding of the mutable adolescent psychology that makes a mockery of the "tribal" culture theories for so long used by adults to explain teenage self-expression.
Sure, you can cast around the foyer and see kids dressed not unlike Pete Doherty, Usher, Marilyn Manson or Missy Elliott; you can spot the grime crowd, the emo gang, the goths, the metallers or the "twirly" dancers. In a dance or theatre class you can also watch them pull on a string of personae and cast them off one by one. At this school personalities aren't adopted to help the wearer fit in, but stand out.
"Some pupils may have had very negative experiences - like bullying or being the only boy dancer in a south London comprehensive - before they came here," Williams observes. "We want to say, standing up for doing what you want to do is normal here - that's what you do."
Daniel, a 17-year-old theatre student, wears street-regulation stripy sweatshirt, black gloves, Reeboks, baseball cap and an earstud, he just laughs when his friend calls him a "chav", because he arrived here from a tough school where the law of the playground quickly cut the tall poppies down.
"I'm living in two worlds," Daniel says. "In my last school you're treated by how you look. I saw fights every day, but when I got here I thought, 'How come someone isn't getting rushed every lunchtime?' If people back there saw me how I am now, I'd get shot! Here, though, everyone mixes in."
Not every pupil who comes to the Brit School is a genius, nor is everyone who leaves a Kook or a Katie Melua in the making. But only a cynical soul would say they don't become a better version of themselves, whatever the colour of their drainpipes.
For more info, go to www.brit.croydon.sch.uk
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