BRIT School Young Athena

The BRIT School: Shaping UK arts and culture for 30 years

As PRS for Music acknowledges the BRIT School's significance with a Heritage Award, principal Stuart Worden, recent graduate Young Athena and alumni The Kooks reflect on three decades of free arts education in Croydon.

Liam Konemann
  • By Liam Konemann
  • 3 Aug 2022
  • min read

The BRIT School was something of a shot in the dark. When it opened in 1991, with a mission to provide arts education and training in skills that make performance possible, it was essentially unheard of in the UK.

‘It was a really big idea, and quite brave,’ says Stuart Worden, who has been principal of the school for the last ten years ‘I was talking to one of the founding trustees yesterday and he said, “to be honest Stuart, when we set up the BRIT School, we didn’t really know what we were doing.” And I said, “well that’s great, we didn’t know what we were doing either.”’

He laughs. ‘We now know what we’re doing, and the proof is out there in the economy. It’s out there in pretty much every walk of arts and culture.’

Celebrating its – somewhat delayed – 30th anniversary this year, the BRIT School is often cited as the incubator for global superstars including Adele, FKA Twigs and Tom Holland. But its cultural contribution goes far deeper than that. BRIT alumni are represented across all facets of the creative industries, from performance to production. In recognition of this, the BRIT School has recently received a PRS for Music Heritage Award, designating the school itself as a significant institution in the British music landscape, and by extension in the cultural history of the country. At the ceremony, the plaque was permanently installed at the school’s Obie Theatre, named after legendary music executive Maurice Oberstein. 

‘The infrastructure of arts and culture in the UK is BRIT-shaped, and the BRIT School is shaped around the arts industry more than it used to be.’

‘I think it's important – I'm glad I went there,’ The Kooks’ frontman Luke Pritchard says of his time at the BRIT School. ‘What I love about it is, over time, it’s gone from somewhere people would call “a stage school”, to a safe space for people to learn about modern music and production.

‘That's one of the things that was key to me, even though I've only really started producing records in the past few years,’ he continues. ‘I got quite good knowledge before I ever walked into the studio. I already understood how it works.’

Over its history, the school has evolved in time with the industry. Alongside courses in musical performance, theatre and dance, the school has a dynamic music technology course, in addition to a digital design strand attended by games and app designers working at the intersection of music and the digital world. 

‘We’ve got them working in the Metaverse at the age of 17,’ says Stuart. ‘That digital design course has flourished.’

The eco-system around the school is also flourishing. As more business-minded students attend, with entrepreneurial goals, BRIT alumni have impacted the creative industries in ways the founders didn’t necessarily foresee. 

‘We’ve got a car designer coming out of BRIT School now,’ Stuart says. ‘That’s what blows my mind. Because I think the music industry, when they came up with the idea, they were like “This is going to be a great place for young people from all backgrounds, particularly those that don’t have money, to go and work in the music industry.” Now I like the fact that you can go to any theatre in London or abroad and see a BRIT School student – or any film set, or radio. We did our TV awards the other day, and we had former students coming back that are now photographers at Wireless, or they’re set painters for Stormzy, or dancers with Little Simz.’

‘The infrastructure of arts and culture in the UK is BRIT-shaped, and the BRIT School is shaped around the arts industry more than it used to be.’

In considering how the school has developed from its initial remit, Stuart has touched on a key element of the BRIT school’s significance. It is completely free to attend. With many aspects of the arts and culture scene heavy with financial barriers, the fact that the school takes no fee and gives students access to state-of-the-art equipment means that it has provided a launching pad for many young people whose talent and capability might otherwise be held back due to lack of resources. 

‘Film equipment is not cheap. Therefore, it’s only going to be those that can afford it that will end up making movies. And I don’t think that’s good for culture.'

‘We believe that young people should be given the best opportunity in life regardless of their income,’ he says. ‘Some of our digital designers don’t have a laptop at home. So they come into school early, and they work eight hours a day on the best equipment. We’re now trying to find resources so that can happen 24 hours a day.’

It’s not just the more technological courses that could otherwise be prohibitively expensive. 

‘We have drummers at the BRIT School who don’t have a drum kit at home because they couldn’t afford one, or they haven’t got a house big enough – all those things, but they can come here at seven in the morning and get behind a drum kit. It’s about accessing that equipment,’ Stuart says.

Levelling the playing field like this has led to a richer, more diverse arts and culture scene in the UK, and is one of the reasons the BRIT School are in receipt of a Heritage Award in the first place. In a statement announcing the award, PRS Members Council chair Nigel Elderton acknowledged the school’s unique educational approach, and its work in breaking down those barriers.

‘Film equipment is not cheap,’ Stuart Worden says now. ‘Therefore, it’s only going to be those that can afford it that will end up making movies. And I don’t think that’s good for culture. It’s not good for art. So, what the record industry and other companies’ support for the school has meant is that we now have people making films and making TV and making culture who never would have thought they could do that. But they've been able to, because of they've had this resource at their fingertips.’

The students themselves are well aware of the importance of equal access to those resources, for themselves and their peers. 

‘With certain things like fees, I think you restrict the amount of people that are able to be part of such an important thing,’ says Young Athena, a recent BRIT School graduate. ‘Another reason why it’s important is I got to meet so many people from so many different walks of life, and that taught me so much about myself and them. I think it’s great just for our development as people in art, and for the creative world.’

It's clear that for Stuart, there’s much to be proud of about the BRIT School’s contribution. When asked for the highlights, though, he pauses.

‘Should I be honest?’ he wonders. Then, he says decisively, ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of what we do on a Saturday.’

On a Saturday, he says, the school has 800 young people between the ages of six and 16 attend classes. 

'This year alone, even during COVID, we reached somewhere between eight and ten thousand people.'

‘That is brilliant,’ he says. ‘Because there’s not so much performing art going on in schools anymore, so that we provide that on a Saturday, I think is really powerful. I love the fact that we’ve increased our community outreach. This year alone, even during COVID, we reached somewhere between eight and ten thousand people. That’s working with hard to reach groups – that’s pupil referral units, we’re working with a homeless charity, we’re working with Alzheimer’s centres, we’re working with people who’ve been affected by crime. The BRIT School reaches out, and I’m really proud it’s not an insular building.’

As the Heritage Award confirms, there is something to be said for the symbolism of the building itself, and what it stands for. 
‘When someone from outside says it’s a significant building, that’s just amazing,’ Stuart says. ‘Because I do remember the first time Adele sung in that space. I do remember watching Jessie J the Musical. I do remember Tom Holland doing physical theatre. And more recently, I remember seeing Black Midi do their first show in that theatre and thinking, “These are exciting.” To know that we’re being celebrated as a site of heritage, it just means that these 30 years have paid off.’

Of course, with a slogan like #AlwaysBRIT the school has to be aware of the future. What’s in store for the next 30 years?
‘I would like more children to have art in their lives. And I think the BRIT School can play a part in that,’ Stuart says. ‘I’d like us to have more of an impact on social justice in the arts. I’d like more young people to be doing performing and creative arts in their schools - and if not in their schools, that we can help provide something.’

For the BRIT School, honouring its heritage does not mean staying in the past. 

‘It's very significant,’ says Luke Pritchard. ‘A couple of the biggest players in the world have come through the BRIT school. It's great for the British music industry, and hopefully long may it be funded.’

Find out more about the PRS for Music Heritage Award