‘Aspire to Excellence.’ Good words of advice to anyone. Words of advice that the Elliott School, a co-ed comprehensive in Putney, had as its motto until its rebranding as an academy in 2012. Nothing remarkable about that. But what is quite astounding is the frankly disproportionate number of ‘Old Elliotonians’ who successfully followed those words of advice, and have gone on to shape the landscape of alternative music in Britain.
The school has produced six Mercury Nominated acts – Jamie xx, Burial, Hot Chip, The Maccabees, The xx and Emma Smith from Basquiat Strings, a feat that becomes even more impressive when you consider this figure matches that of the renowned BRIT School.
Whilst the Brit School’s primary focus is on performing arts, and students are required to pass entrance auditions, the Elliott School was a non-selective state school with no obvious specialism in music. In fact the school itself was rather unspectacular, but when asked about the incredible track-record for producing musical talent, the answer from those who went on to achieve success is always very similar. They all cite an intrinsic tolerance and laissez-faire attitude from the powers-that-be as key for their development as artists.
Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, is one of the most respected British producers and DJs around, and he studied at the school in the mid-nineties, signing his first record deal with his band Fridge at the age of fifteen – speaking in 2009 he explained how:
“I’d rehearse with my band at lunch and for hours after school without any interference. When I was at school, drum’n’bass happened. Our teachers would let us set up big sound systems and have drum’n’bass parties during lunchtime breaks… we’d be in a drama room with machines and strobe lights for half an hour, dancing to Super Sharp Shooter or something blasting out at huge volume.”
Fellow Fridge band member and now a musician in his own right Adem Ilhan echoes this:
“Sometimes there weren’t even enough cables or the drums would be shabby, but we were never denied the use of anything. They just let us get on with it and encouraged us to be creative.”
This notion of encouraging creativity by taking a back seat and allowing students a certain level of freedom to pursue their artistic interests is one that appears again and again. Joe Goddard (of Hot Chip and The 2 Bears) perhaps captures this best:
“There was a spirit: if you want to do something just go and fucking do it. You didn’t need permission.”
Following an Ofsted inspection in 2009 which deemed the school ‘inadequate’, measures were put in place to transform the Elliot’s School’s fortunes. Measures which, despite being undeniably beneficial for a wider proportion of the student body, may well have killed off the attitudes and approaches to development that made the Elliot School such a hotbed for creative talent.
The school is now called the ARK Putney Academy, following a 2012 re-brand and change of status, and it is now supported by the charity ‘Absolute Return for Kids’ which invests in schools to improve academic results and spur pupils on to higher education. Obviously, this is an admirable aim, and by no means should the achievements of this charity be belittled. But you can’t help feeling that in transforming the Elliot School into a strictly academic institution with a clear goal of the university for all its students, it has lost part of its heart and soul, part of the attitude and environment that over the course of the last two decades has generated some of the most exciting, innovative and interesting alternative musicians Britain has to offer.
It may just be an incredible coincidence or a phenomenon of chance that so many great artists came from this school, but whatever the reality, it seems increasingly unlikely that the trend will continue. Let the Elliot School never be forgotten for its contribution to music. We owe it a lot.