The BRIT School – 20 years on

First published on November 2011.

The BRIT School is celebrating 20 years of a unique educational and industrial partnership. The only school whose capital funding derived from a pop festival (Knebworth 1889), it represents a partnership between the British music industry in the shape of the BRIT Trust and the Department for Education. From the beginning, it has pushed at the innovative boundaries: its main building is a 40-square metre box of a theatre surrounded by practical learning spaces that inform all aspects of rehearsal and performance. In its first ten years, performance followed the traditional lines of the arts industries, but the revolution in new technologies has transformed our thinking and curriculum, although not necessarily the way our students learn.

First it was the music

The first seismic shift for us came with music – as the industry that has helped define us struggled with a radical reorientation of how people receive and purchase their music, so we have changed from a curriculum where everyone played and a small number recorded, to one where the learning is all one – technology in classrooms, in venues and in bedrooms that requires every musician to participate in all parts of the music production process. Our ability to see all of these skills as creative, engaging and personal is one of the reasons why so many of our ex-students have engaged successfully with the music business. Key to this is how our students learn by trial and error from each other, using their own personal engagement with the new, more personalised technologies and by regarding teachers as fellow professionals engaging and embracing change.

Creative model

This model of learning has always been in the school’s creative fabric, so it was much easier for us to roll with change in the teaching of dance, theatre, arts, radio and film, informing along the way how our students engage with English, maths, science, history and so on. Creative professionals We have from the outset held professional practice in high regard and now routinely recruit high-end practitioners from the relevant industries – artists, actors, musicians, master carpenters, dancers, radio and filmmakers – then train them as teachers on the job. We constantly draw down favours from ex-students who are spread throughout the industries developing new practice, who come back to share where the world is moving; all of us are always hungry to learn.

Make a record

A visit from Jonnie Turpie to our summer festival and the observation that so much of our work was lost as soon as the performance finished led to our film and digital arts enterprise, spurred on by the hiring of Ken McGill, the filmmaker who made a 13-part series for the BBC about creativity in the school. Provided with additional funding by government to develop a second specialism in digital arts, we invested to allow all students to use a full range of new hardware and software to produce film, animation and other cross-arts products; many of these were uploaded on to our website, partnering with a wide range of entrepreneurial companies who are keen to work with our freedom-loving students.

In the world

We have taken our beliefs beyond the school gates, to Glastonbury to live and multimedia performances on the Left Field stage; shortly to Accra in Ghana; across Europe with performances and films in Sweden, Poland, Italy, Belgium France…; to North America; to setting up a Foundation Degree in Digital Media Practice with Bournemouth University and a number of industry partners; and, best of all, to Birmingham, where, with our industry partners Maverick TV, PRG and the BRIT Trust, we have supported sponsors Ormiston Education and Birmingham City University to create a partner digital media academy. Here we hope the bar of personalized multi-platform arts education can be pushed even higher.

Who knows best

Education in the UK, as a static three Rs artifact isn’t keeping up with the change – the system has to reconfigure itself to be a learning environment, not just defined by content and narrow sets of skills. In this world, adults don’t always know best.

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