The old Central Saint Martins building in central London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is this the end of the British art school?

Art schools used to be a place where the socially and intellectually marginal could distinguish themselves. Now, with unattainable entry requirements and a hefty price tag, they’re becoming a dwelling place for commercial interests and the children of the international elite.

When the Great Exhibition opened its doors in 1851, Britain’s reputation as the workshop of the world was on the wane. Few visitors would have known it at the time, but the exhibition signified the high watermark of British manufacturing. French design and Prussian engineering were already edging ahead. In 2012, London hosted another event designed to present Britain to the world – one which referenced the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution by featuring towering smoke stacks and beating drums.

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony represented British history as a creative blossoming that started in the nineteenth century but seemed to reach its zenith in the twentieth century when fashion, film and pop music boomed. And yet it seems to me that Boyle’s Olympic opener – just like the Great Exhibition – was telling a story about Britain that had already ceased to be true. The circumstances which made it possible for artists to thrive in Britain during the twentieth century are rapidly disappearing. And perhaps one of the most essential changes is in our art schools.

Name any one of the UK’s most famous designers or musicians, never mind artists, and they are likely to have set foot in an art school at one time or other: David Bowie, Pete Townsend, Brian Eno, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano. I could go on and on. Economist Hasan Bakhshi of innovation charity Nesta says that he is frequently asked about how we run our art schools by educationalists abroad. Art schools are perceived by many as the key to our creative success.

Yet art schools have changed dramatically over the last 20–30 years, causing many to question whether they will, in the future, cultivate the innovators we so badly need. Art schools used to be havens for students who, for whatever reason, had not found their niche in the traditional academic system. Now prospective art students very often have to prove their academic credentials to compete for a place at the most prestigious colleges. Once on the course, art students have to submit an increasing volume of written work, arguably a distraction from practical skills and craft.

Tuition fees have made higher education in Britain more expensive than anywhere else in Europe, and art schools are no exception. This means that the social and economic mix is disappearing (students from poorer backgrounds being less inclined to take out a loan for a non-vocational subject such as fine art). What’s more, art schools are going out of their way to attract foreign students for the extra income they bring. Unsurprisingly, there is deep concern among many artists and teachers that the age of the art school is over: workshops for ceramics, printing, and metalwork have been replaced by computer rooms, digital expertise is prioritised before craft; student numbers are rocketing and teaching hours are sinking.

Designer Jay Osgerby graduated with a Masters in architecture from the Royal College of Art. He’s one of a generation of British designers who are now leading design practice around the world, in every field from fashion to technology. The head of Burberry, Christopher Bailey, was in the same year as Jay and his partner Edward Barber; Thomas Heatherwick was another who attended the RCA around the same time; and Apple’s Jonathan Ive was an industrial design student at Newcastle Polytechnic.

Osgerby remembers the RCA as a place where people were constantly making things. The lift was continuously crammed with half-made dresses and furniture being ferried up and down. The RCA, he believes, still manages to hold on to this highly practical ethos, but everywhere he sees the rise of computers taking the place of the hand-made: computers, he says “make you look like an innovator rather than a throw-back to the industrial revolution, but I think that’s a really big mistake.”

The truth is that workshops are expensive and that’s a good enough reason to get rid of them. As education is effectively privatised, art school managers are more interested in business models than the experience of students. An art school such as Central Saint Martins (part of the University of the Arts London) recruits around 40 per cent of its BA students from overseas. It also runs short courses for members of the public. This extra income allows the art school to do a few “special things”, says its head Jeremy Till, such as putting on two degree shows so splendid they attracted almost 50,000 people earlier this year. He says the new building at Kings Cross (where the art school moved from its West End site in 2011) makes the art school a “cultural destination”. Never mind the fact that some staff and students feel uncomfortable with the monolithic, anonymous architecture (one tutor told me that there’s never enough studio space for everyone, you can’t open windows, and you no longer meet people from other courses despite the fact that everyone is now on the same premises.)

So is it necessary to impress the public with a dazzling building and exciting brand? Jeremy Till would tell you that it’s exactly this kind of self-presentation that’s encouraged Google to locate its European offices right next door to Central Saint Martins’ new building at Kings Cross in North London. And maybe he’s got a point. Google might offer jobs to some of the young “creatives” who step out of Saint Martins’ sliding doors. But there’s a balance to be struck. If Central Saint Martins isn’t concentrating attention – above all – on the experience of students within its walls, then the shiny exterior will become just that – a façade, a front, a shop window. Nothing more.

Art School, Smart School, produced by Isabel Sutton, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22 November at 8pm

Update: this piece was edited on 25 November to fix an attribution error

Isabel Sutton is a radio producer and journalist.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times