It is hard to believe Brit school has been around for 20 years, and perhaps even harder to believe it is near Croydon. The perceived glamour of the place sits incongruously amongst the terraced housing, but despite fearing the school is an extended Glee sequence, that the students don’t communicate via Broadway show tunes and cartwheels is almost disappointing. We arrive at lunchtime and the canteen is like any other schools’; all shrill gossip and crisps.
Potential students waiting for their auditions in the reception are quieter, but accompanying parents are more nervous. Confidence is a key feature of Brit school, something it nurtures, but at first glance, it appears this lot already have it. In spades.
Croydon may not be the obvious location for Brit school, and Nick Williams (the principle), agrees with the suggestion students must be committed if they’re willing to travel to South London, although the large catchment area is mainly the South East, “I prefer it here, it makes it less of a showcase, and a stronger concern. The only reason it’s here is because there was an empty field.” So the trees loss was light entertainment’s gain.
The Brits school is a precursor to the free school, academy movement, and was set up after Kenneth Baker, Secretary of State Education, approached Richard Branson in 1998. Despite Mrs. Thatcher, being less enthusiastic about a school “for out of work actors”, it was successfully established and is a shining example of how well children respond to a challenge. It’s properly kitted out, with the feel of higher education, although its pupils probably have a clearer idea of future vocation than your average university student.
While pupils pursue specific areas of expertise, they are grounded in traditional, academic subjects; nonetheless, even spare periods are spent pursuing their ambition: in one case a teenager spending his lunch break writing string melodies over a promising rhythm track for his band Siren; in a studio Abbey Road would be proud of. The school is, as Nick points out, “supportive, not directive.” But no one is encouraged to think things will be easy outside. “Success is a long game for most people, so we encourage patience and resilience to survive disappointment as well as success.” For those in communication, drama, theatre, visual arts/design, and business or management, success is unlikely to come overnight, “but most pupils will find fulfilling careers throughout the industry, at all levels.” The singers maybe in the spotlight, but there are far more operating it. This might be the case, but no one’s learning who to make tea.
Although Saint Etienne endeavour to glamorise Croydon, fans of Jessie J, Adele (frequently popping in unannounced) and Amy Winehouse might be as disappointed as David Bowie was, who called it “concrete hell”. But the school is seriously impressive; it’s the school we all wished we’d gone to.