Chasing free school status

26th October 2012 at 01:00
Star DJ Will Kennard is focusing as much on timetables as turntables as he attempts to set up a free school in London's East End for 16- to 19- year-olds who want to get into the music industry

Standing at the door of his record label offices is a tired Will Kennard.

Kennard, aka "Status", makes up one half of the drum and bass DJ duo Chase and Status and when he is not playing Glastonbury or working with the likes of Snoop Dogg or Rihanna, he is trying to open a free school in London's East End.

He is tired because he was best man at his friend and co-DJ Saul Milton's wedding the night before. He gives a quick rundown of the night, mentioning in passing guests in attendance, such as Plan B - the hugely successful singer-songwriter and recently turned director. Visions of a debauched celebrity party flash through my head.

"I actually spent most of the night talking to Plan B about education," Kennard says, smiling. "We forced him on to the stage to sing one of his songs and when he was finished we returned to our conversation about our school. He seemed really interested in it."

The comment shatters any preconceptions about musicians and warms the cockles at the same time. The idea that the artists filling students' ears with rough urban sounds should be fretting about education in their spare time ought to be enough to bring a smile to any teacher's face.

But while Plan B, through his Each One Teach One trust, hopes to support young people by linking them up with various organisations to help with career progression, Kennard is going a step further and trying to start his own school.

The very fact that Kennard, a youthful 31, is willing to meet me the day after his best friend's wedding speaks volumes about his commitment to the project. Whereas most people in his position would be struggling to keep down a full English breakfast, the pop star is about to hold court at a meeting about his new free school.

The DJ is leading a young group made up of former teachers, a solicitor and an investment banker brought together to open a free school in Tower Hamlets - one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. It would cater for 140 16- to 19-year-olds who want to get into the music industry.

The East London Academy of Music (Elam) hopes to emulate the success of the Croydon-based Brit School - which boasts Adele, the late Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis among its alumni - while also providing its students with worthwhile vocational qualifications that will enable them to work away from the limelight in a number of roles within the music business. While students will not need a minimum set of qualifications to enter the school, every student will be expected to leave the college with good GCSEs in both English and maths.

The idea for the school came 10 years ago while Kennard was teaching at an FE college in Manchester after dropping out of university. Before the musician's career took off he taught BTEC for two years in the former North Trafford College, an experience that stayed with him after he made it big.

"It was a real eye-opener because they were incredibly talented, more talented than I was, but because of the difficult backgrounds they had, they struggled to make a success out of it," he says. "I just saw it as a terrible waste of talent. There were kids there who had taught themselves how to play every top 40 hit on the piano, but they didn't know what C major was."

He puts it down to personal circumstances. Kennard was educated at the highly selective West London independent school St Paul's, where full boarding fees are nearly pound;30,000 a year, and the upbringing and support he was afforded were invaluable for pursuing a career in the music business.

It would have been easy for fame and fortune to distract the young musician, but Kennard never forgot his experience teaching in Manchester. And when education secretary Michael Gove came to power - bringing with him his flagship free school policy - the opportunity arose to open his own school.

With the school becoming a real possibility, Kennard and his fellow free school group agreed, perhaps naively, to allow TES to sit in on their meeting and keep tabs on how the school progresses from idea to, potentially, reality.

He is joined in his offices by his brother Charlie Kennard and Ed Butcher, both of whom are former teachers and currently work for the education charity Teach First. The fourth member of the team is Isolde Rutherford, a solicitor with London firm Bates Wells and Braithwaite, who is steering the project through the multitude of hoops that have to be cleared before the group is considered fit for an interview with the Department for Education.

All hands on deck

So impressive has the team's application been so far that they have been placed on the New Schools Network (NSN) development programme, a scheme run by the free school charity providing financial support to free school bids that are looking to open in areas of educational disadvantage.

The meeting is kicked off by Rutherford who, as a solicitor, is well versed in keeping meetings on the "straight and narrow", as she puts it.

With the group's various connections through Kennard, Teach First and Rutherford's law firm - which has already helped to establish a number of free schools, including School 21, the institution led by former Tony Blair adviser Peter Hyman - the team has an impressive list of contacts and networking opportunities.

The meeting flows to the topic of marketing and how they intend to sell both themselves and the idea of the school to the community they will be serving. The design of the website is discussed at length - the importance of looking professional being at the forefront of the group's minds.

"There's no point talking about setting up a state-of-the-art music school if they land on a crappy website," Charlie Kennard states. It is a fair point, but the group is constantly asked by both the DfE and NSN to demonstrate value for money in everything it does. High-spec websites do not come cheap and Rutherford reveals that the budget will stretch to only pound;200. "Tell them for that we want the new version of Facebook," Charlie Kennard jokes.

From the website, the topic moves on to leafleting and organising a community meeting to give students and their parents the opportunity to listen to what the school will provide and how it will work.

It is undoubtedly the right tack to be taking but what is striking is the apparent naivety among the team with regard to possible opposition to the project, particularly from local teaching unions.

When the subject comes up they seem remarkably unprepared for the possibility that their school could come under fire from groups such as the NUT or the Anti Academies Alliance, which are fervently opposed to free schools.

From education's more militant socialist factions, the meeting moves neatly to the subject of private finance and securing outside investment for the school.

Kennard is keen for his school to provide industry-standard equipment, something beyond the means of most school budgets, so finding private funds is of utmost importance.

The team is fortunate enough to have the help of an investment banker - Ben Colegrave, a close friend of Kennard's - who is working alongside the DJ to attract additional funding from the City and beyond.

It is here that Kennard's presence is particularly useful. Whereas the education side, the pedagogy and the curriculum are predominantly taken care of by the two former teachers, Kennard's contacts in the music industry are what set the school apart.

A keen advocate for the school is Geoff Taylor, chief executive of the British Phonographic Institute, which is the representative body for the recording industry. "Geoff is seriously supportive of what we are doing," Kennard says. "He regularly lobbies Parliament on behalf of the music business so to have someone like him on board is invaluable."

Industry figures such as Geoff Taylor and Nick Williams, principal of the Brit School, buying into the idea of Elam is crucial for the school's success. For example, the group is determined that leading members working in the music business and helping with teaching and assessment will set it apart from other colleges.

After an hour, the meeting begins to wind up. Every minute dedicated to the school is done in individuals' spare time so time is incredibly tight. Butcher says the school has been an "obsession" for the team ever since the idea arose.

Whatever one's politics on free schools, Elam sounds like an impressive project. What makes it all the more impressive, however, is that each member of the bid team, Kennard aside, is barely out of their early twenties, and yet they are in the advanced stages of setting up their own school. And Kennard is doing all this while working on a new album.

And yet trying to establish a school in one of London's toughest areas is, for the DJ at least, entirely natural. However, he is all too aware that for it to be a real success he needs the backing from the industry in which he works.

"What sets the Brit School apart is the private funding," Kennard says. "When people set foot inside they can't believe it's a school and not a professional place of work. While it's not essential to get private funding, it is pretty important.

"There is a big drive within the British music industry to put money back into education programmes, particularly to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we're not going to get funding and support from these people then my question would be, why not? And who is?"

Illustration: Paul Bateman

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