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3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Roger Durston has left the cloistered calm of Wells Cathedral to head the 'Fame' school for the performing arts.

THE NEW principal of the Brit school gazes out of the window at the dreary suburban sprawl that is modern Croydon. It's Monday morning and the rain on the grey slate roofs is about as uninspiring a sight as you could imagine. "It's a bit different from my last school, isn't it?" he asks rhetorically.

Until the end of last year Roger Durston was head of music at Wells Cathedral school, founded in 909 AD, and where he was once a pupil.

By contrast, the performing arts school Durston took over in January first opened its doors in 1991. Moreover, Wells is a fee-paying institution for the privileged, while the Brit school draws primarily on the inner city with a policy of discriminating in favour of the disadvantaged. In the cloisters at Wells you will hear pupils singing motets by Thomas Tallis; in the music room at the Brit school you are more likely to find them rehearsing a medley of Spice Girls hits.

Yet Durston is more excited by his new post than anything else in a long career spent in music education.

After graduating from King's College Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar, he taught in comprehensives. A spell as director of music in Berkshire was followed by a move to East Sussex in 1984 as head of music services, where over 10 years he developed a reputation as one of the most progressive musical educators in Britain.

He played a prime role in helping Glyndebourne Opera establish its education programme and chaired the Music Education Council. His former boss, Jon Baxter, head of Wells, says Durston "breathed vitality into music-making". He not only maintained the excellence of the choirs and orchestras, but encouraged classical players and choristers to form rock and jazz groups. And he helped to forge links with a local comprehensive to stage joint productions.

Durston says he does not disagree with the Goverment's drive to improve traditional skills such as literacy and numeracy, but thinks the critical task for 21st century education will be to develop creativity. People in the past, he says "have become creative despite, not because of, their education".

The Brit school, he says, has a different philosophy. "It's not about the teacher pulling or pushing. The students are working out their own creative destiny."

A tour of the building supports this claim. In the music room Year 12 students are working on their own compositions using the latest digital sequencers. In one of the drama studios a political theatre class is rehearsing a play they have written about child abuse. And in one of the school's two recording studios (designed by Beatles' producer Sir George Martin) students are mixing their own CD.

As we walk down a corridor Durston is handed a flyer inviting him to a performance of three short one-act plays. It's not part of any official course but the initiative of a small theatre company set up by students. He promises to attend and says he can fit it in before the dance department's big production in the school theatre the same night

"Our students are not only singing, dancing and acting in their own shows but gaining sponsorship for them, doing front of house, box office, writing press releases, working back-stage - every aspect of the industry."

Funded jointly by the Department for Education and the British Record Industry Trust, the Brit school opened in a blaze of publicity almost a decade ago as Britain's only free performing arts school and one of the first independent city technology colleges, but has dropped out of the limelight - a situation Durston intends to remedy with a major marketing campaign.

"I want to shout a bit louder to let people know about the school. It's a great success story."

As part of his campaign Durston is inviting every secondary head in London to visit the school with groups of pupils.

The school has 800 students, and admission is at age 14 into Year 10 or at 16-plus into Year 12. The catchment area is Greater London or anyone within an hour's journey (some pupils travel up from Brighton).

Years 10 and 11 follow the full national curriculum plus a major and minor arts option. Years 12 and 13 specialise in music, musical theatre, dance, production, media or art and design and gain advanced national vocational qualifications or BTEC diplomas as well as A-levels.

Applicants for the oversubscribed school are selected after "structured discussions" rather than formal interviews.

"Many students think they want to be famous but have no notion of the commitment it requires. So we are looking for tenacity rather than just ability.

Selection procedures also ensure diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. Indeed Durston sees the core purpose of the school as "developing the abilities of disadvantaged inner-city pupils".

He admits GCSE results are "modest", with only 30 per cent attaining five GCSEs between A* and C. "But given the intake that is what you would expect, and results in performing arts are pretty good.Here they've got a chance to succeed at the things they are best at."

This week 400 pupils will go to Earls Court for the annual Brit awards, the pop world's most glittering jamboree, where they will see top bands such as Travis and Stereophonics. "It's important for them to see some of the people they aspire to become," Durston says.

Yet the school has so far failed to produce superstars. The singer Lynden David Hall, winner of a MOBO (Music of Black Origin) award and a Brit nominee, and two members of the boy band Another Level are the closest it has got. Durston is unworried by this, and points to the wider "labour market relevance" of what the school does.

"They call it the Fame school but it is for the music industry as a whole. The school is not here to produce stars, although we hope that we will. We will celebrate people who become camera operators and video editors just as much."

Durston is relishing the challenge of putting the school firmly on the map. "People often asked me why I hadn't become a head. (But) I always felt I wouldn't be comfortable being a manager. The Brit school is the only place I could imagine doing it."

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