Skip to main content


Bring back art school for “layabouts”

John Lennon, Pete Townshend, David Bowie and Charlie Watts. Michael Ochs/George Wilkes/Getty Images

What did the late Rolling Stone Charlie Watts have in common with John Lennon, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies and many other great rockers of the 1960s and 1970s? They were all lucky enough to go to art schools that “subsidised messers, dreamers and misfits”, says Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times. Entry requirements were minimal and the National Diploma in Design was known by students as the “Nothing Doing Diploma”. Keith Richards, a “yob” who ended up in art school, once said: “It’s somewhere they put you if they can’t put you anywhere else.” Students were “pampered layabouts” given generous grants and cheap housing. Yet these asylums for misfits produced musicians who are loved the world over, doing more for Britain’s international standing half a century ago “than the entire Foreign Office”.

Postwar art schools came from two now unfashionable political ideas. First, that bad boys and girls “temperamentally allergic” to traditional universities had a right to further education. Second, that it was worth giving young people a chance and not fretting “about trying to control what they’re doing”. This was all lost in the 1980s, when bigger institutions gobbled up the art schools amid the mania for measuring inputs and outcomes. That’s a shame, because it’s “useless non-conformists” who give us new art and new ideas. Where in Britain’s education system will “happy accidents” like Charlie Watts find a home now?