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Controversial Bridget Jones film school gets the go-ahead

Production company behind hit movie to open specialist 6th-form college for 1,000 students

17 November, 2017 — By Joe Cooper

Bridget Jones

THE country’s most successful film production company has been given the go-ahead to open a sixth-form college, despite opposition from schools and teaching unions.

Working Title, which was behind smash hits such as the Bridget Jones series and Love Actually, have teamed up with an academy trust to open a 1,000-student school in Ladbroke House, Highbury Grove.

Film chiefs say there are skills shortages in the British film industry, as well as a diversity problem.

The Mellor Educational Trust (MET) did not have to apply for a change of use for the building as it had previously been used for educational purposes by London Metropolitan University.

MET chief executive Richard Elms told a planning meeting last week: “There is a great shortage of people going into the industry at all levels, from technicians and camera operators to writers and directors.

“We are trying to bring young people into this who might never have previously thought about a career in this industry and give them the skills necessary.”

An illustration of the proposed film school in Highbury Grove, run by Working Title and The Mellor Educational Trust. Images: Architecture Initiative

His comments echoed those of Working Title’s founders, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, who spoke about the project at the Toronto Interaction Film Festival in September.

“We go to film production studios and they are not diverse,” said Mr Bevan. “That is not right. We realised we had to go back and start at the education level.”

Mr Fellner added: “We want to ensure we get an absolutely diverse set of students from diverse backgrounds into the industry. We don’t have a quick fix but we want to help them realise the opportunities in the hope their voices will multiply.”

The MET has previously said it will adopt a pan-London admissions policy, accepting students from all over the capital, including 25 from Islington. The school will include a film studio and will teach courses ranging from scriptwriting to hair and make-up, lighting and post-production.

The plans have had a controversial history. It emerged last year that the Department of Education paid £33.5million for the building before it was taken on by the MET. There is not a shortage of school places in the area but existing schools are struggling with budget cuts from central government.

MET chairman David Meller is a luxury property developer, Conservative Party donor and a member of the Department for Education board.

The trust had wanted to open a secondary school with a film specialism but scaled back its plans after opposition from Islington Council, unions and schools. In December last year during a public meeting at Highbury Fields – rated outstanding by Ofsted – an alternative proposal to build flats for public sector workers was greeted with widespread approval. The film specialism of the school was also criticised as a “fool’s errand” by a local film and TV producer, who said the industry was tiny and constantly changing, and said its educational value was “highly questionable”.

Despite reducing the scope to 16 to 18-year-olds, the number of pupils in the newly approved proposal – 1,000 – remains the same.

In planing documents, Highbury Fields’ chairman of governors, Richard Hadley, said that Highbury, which has two secondary schools within 500 metres of Ladbroke House, was already “saturated”.

“Our school and colleagues at Highbury Grove School work closely to reduce the impact of trips to and from our sites on the local road users and to ensure the safe movement of large numbers of students at key times of the day,” he wrote. “We do not have confidence that the extent of the additional numbers of young people can be accommodated or managed safely.”

He also raised concerns that the school would not be viable and might therefore later apply to accept children under 16.

“This case will increase the risk of affecting the viability of existing institutions and a resulting loss of educational space due to the limited number of students locally,” he said. Rachel Archer, the NEU representative at Highbury Fields school, said after the meeting: “The community, teachers at the local schools and local council have been clear on this: there is no need for a new school in this location. It is an indictment of our times that blind profiteering comes before community need.

“Islington NEU will continue to campaign against the free school plan and we appeal to Islington Council to reconsider its previously principled opposition and, once more, join us.”

Welcoming the “tempting proposition” at last Tuesday’s meeting, Cllr Paul Convery said it was contradictory for Highbury Fields to claim the school might be damaging to them when it has said it would adopt a pan-London admissions policy.

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