The push for a specialist creative school in Bradford: 'BRIT School North'

Sophie Jones, the BPI’s Chief Strategy Officer and Interim Chief Executive, gives us the inside story on the new school project and its ambitions.

  • 17 May 2023
  • min read

The BPI has submitted a bid to the Department for Education for a new specialist creative arts college for students aged 16-19. It is inspired by the BRIT School, as well its connection to East London Arts and Music (ELAM).

The BPI represents the three global record companies – ‘the majors’ – Sony Music, Universal Music and Warner Music, as well as nearly 500 independent British-owned music companies across the regions and nations. It founded the BRIT Trust in 1989, with a mission to draw on the transformative power of music and the arts to do good and to enable positive life pathways for young people of all backgrounds. The Trust went on to create the BRIT School in Croydon in 1991. It co-owns the Official Charts and organises the annual BRIT Awards and the Mercury Prize.

Sophie Jones, the BPI’s Chief Strategy Officer and Interim Chief Executive, gives us the inside story on the project and its ambitions. 

When did the idea to bring a free creative industries school to the North come about?

The BPI and our members have a long history in founding and supporting specialist creative education. We’ve felt for some time that we could be doing more to share our experiences and provide more opportunity to the talent that exists around the UK, and that the best way to achieve this was by launching a new school outside of London and the South East. Not only does this offer the opportunity to access a world-class specialist creative education to a greater number of young people, but it shores-up a diverse talent pipeline for our world-leading creative industries.

It has been difficult to progress this ambition over the last few years due to the pandemic, but in June 2022, the Government announced they would be bringing forward the next iteration of ‘free-school’ funding – Wave-15. We decided to seize upon this chance as we couldn’t be sure when the next opportunity would arise. We moved quickly to submit a bid for 16-19 college in a new location, that we decided should be somewhere in the North of England.

Why has Bradford been selected?

Any location for a school such as this needs to meet a tall order of criteria to ensure it stands the best chance of being successful, and that’s not to mention a whole host of technical requirements from Government. We conducted a process to assess the most viable location and met with a number of local authorities. We felt that Bradford was our best choice due to the exciting developments already taking place there including their City of Culture status for 2025 and their strategy for a prosperous creative economy. It is vital that this school sits within a wider creative ecosystem in order for the school to meet its ambitions and be a success.

Bradford’s location and its young, diverse and in areas deprived population, also delivers on the fundamental ethos behind the school of reaching those who may not otherwise have an opportunity to access the creative industries. We expect our intended cohort of students however to extend beyond Bradford to West Yorkshire and the wider North of England.

We have been overwhelmed by the level of support from local people and organisations in Bradford, particularly existing creatives from the area who recognise the gap that our proposals would be filling. Bradford Council and Tracy Brabin – the Mayor of West Yorkshire –  have given their backing to the bid too which has been invaluable. 

Will this go some way to redressing the balance between arts and creative opportunities in the South vs in the North?

There has already been a groundswell of creative activity in this region with the likes of Tileyard North in Wakefield or with Channel4’s big move to Leeds (they also have a satellite project in Bradford), to name just a few. We hope that this only continues to grow, and that our school if approved, will complement the existing work and show that you don’t have to travel to London to find a creative home.

Our members are also working to make this a reality too through their own initiatives. Geographically, 43% of the BPI membership is outside of the M25 and includes companies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Universal Music recently announced the launch of EMI North in Leeds, Sony Music has a partnership with the Royal Northern College of Music, and Warner Music collaborates with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation and The Ultimate Seminar across the UK. One of our indie members, Ostereo, has created an education arm and forged a new degree course in Manchester for the next generation of music industry executives. 

We also offer opportunities to artists and SME music businesses across the UK through the Music Export Growth Scheme. Since launching in 2013, the scheme has successfully supported 330 UK artists and SMEs with over £5 million of Government funding to supplement additional music industry backing. 62% of all recipients have come from outside of London and around a quarter of the grants (24%) have gone to artists from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Expanding and growing MEGS alongside Government remains a key priority for the BPI. 

One aim of the college is to 'level-up creative opportunity for underserved young people'. How?

The BPI and our members want to ensure that the UK’s music industry, and wider creative industries, are reflective of society – both in the artists we listen to or the performers we watch, and the teams that support them behind the scenes.

Central to our work in pursuit of this, is a strong commitment to make the industry inclusive and accessible for all. Although it’s a new term in the political sphere, in the music industry, ‘levelling-up’ has been happening for years. Our diverse and innovative sector has always offered an opportunity, regardless of background, to pursue a music career and potentially achieve extraordinary success.

Education and outreach are a vitally important tools to achieving this which is why it’s always been central to our work. We founded the BRIT Trust in 1989 – our charitable arm – which went on to create the BRIT School in Croydon in 1991. We have also been actively involved in East London Arts and Music (ELAM), a 16-19 specialist creative college in Bow, East London since its opening in 2014. Both of these schools have a fantastic record of providing opportunities to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not otherwise have had a chance to pursue creative careers.

In January 2018, we also launched the BRITs Apprentice Scheme which gives 10 individuals from all backgrounds across the UK a 15-month paid placement with an independent record label or music company. Now we want to take our experience and expand on this work further through the creation of this new school.

Why is it important to provide education in back-of-house and production skills, and not just in performance?

Creativity comes in many forms and the reason the UK is renowned in this space is because of the breadth of talent we have here. Great music starts with great performers, but we also have world-class producers, mixers, engineers who all work to make a song a ‘hit’. The same can be said across theatre, dance and in the digital space where there is creativity in abundance across different disciplines.

The future is digital and the creative industries is no exception. To skill the future workforce, we will require the best possible skills in tech, as well as the best performers. This school will provide a home for young people looking to pursue varied creative paths.

Our proposed initial curriculum offer will consist of Music & Music Technology; Performance – including Theatre, Musical Theatre and Dance; Production Arts; Film & Media Production and Interactive Digital Design/Games. The immersive creative environment, which will exist by the nature of being a specialist college, will foster cross-school collaboration for students studying in the various strands. This will mimic a real industry environment where partnership working is vital to ensuring the best creative output.  

What are the next steps to make the school a reality?

Bidding to open a free school is a highly competitive process and being the first pot of money up for grabs since before the pandemic, it was inevitable that Wave-15 would be highly sought after.

The Government has committed to approving only 15 schools in this Wave and has published a list of 64 applications. Whilst we, and our partners remain hopeful – there is no guarantee that a school will be approved – we are busy continuing to prepare. 

After submitting our written bid in November 2022, all applications were considered and a shortlist was created of those being invited to interview to expand on their proposals. We were delighted to reach the second stage and were interviewed by the Department for Education in early April. We now await the final decision of the department which is expected in June.

If our bid is unsuccessful, then our commitment to improving access to education will remain but we will need to explore other ways in which might be able to achieve this.