East London Arts and Music College is quietly reshaping how young people are taught game development...
The first thing you notice when you visit East London Art and Music college (ELAM) is the space. Big, open, modern, and oddly calm for a college set up by one half of the electronica duo, Chase and Status.
Status, or by his real name, Will Kennard, helped set up the college in 2014 as a way for young people based in one the UK’s most deprived areas to get world class access to the music industry. The college was co-founded with Will’s brother, Charlie Kennard, who was a Teach First alumni and start-up entrepreneur. This combination of industry access and high quality teaching led ELAM to be rated as ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED, a huge achievement by a non-fee paying school, let alone for its location.
The college is based behind a concrete flyover in Bromley-by-Bow. As soon as you leave the tube station you can see the letters, ‘ELAM’ dominating the urban skyline. Its a real statement building, with glass and concrete at all kinds of strange angles, it’s impressive and obviously an inspirational space for it’s attendees.
Into Games had first heard about some of the great work being done there by the guys over at Creative Assembly. The studio had been working with the college for the last 2 years, forging a deep partnership in a great example of how industry can embed itself in the educational system and make a real change to the lives of learners.
ELAM’s intake is a really diverse mix of young people that are all particularly underrepresented in the video games industry. It’s a credit to the teaching methods that most of their Level 3 students (17/18 years old) are now confidently applying for prestigious game development courses at Newcastle and Abertay or, on the route to starting their own indie studios.
Their students, despite the odds, are massively outperforming those at other colleges all over the country and many of them are so advanced that they wonder whether they should even bother going to university at all - “why waste three years, when we’re ready for work now?”.
So what’s the secret sauce? How does ELAM achieve these amazing results and what can we learn to take to other colleges and schools across the UK?
At face value, it seems pretty simple. ELAM has tried to replicate the real working environment of a studio, as much as possible.
On our visit, Level 3 students were developing their final project, an online multiplayer game in Unity. Levels were rich in detail, and the whole room was quietly buzzing with people each working on their particular specialism for the upcoming deadline. There was a line of coders on one side, an art team, music and sound and an actual project lead, helping direct. This kind of team work seemed central to the ELAM teaching philosophy.
Mik Nelson, is the head of the games at the college and was kind enough to show us around. It was clear from the start that getting young people ready for work was the priority.
“Every project we run here is in some way curated by industry. We try to replicate the working environment of a studio here in the college by using project management tools, having daily standups and getting the students to really bond as a team.”
Having a close relationship with a large AAA studio like Creative Assembly is one of the ways that this has been made possible.
“Creative Assembly supply a regular stream of mentors, they help us create challenges and let us run regular supported game jams that quickly build students confidence as well as help build a portfolio of finished games.”
Students at ELAM spend their first year (Level2), working through a realistic product cycle as a whole class. Their first term is spent doing research and pre-production, while the following is spent on developing the actual game, while finally doing post and evaluation.
The second year is spent working on developing their portfolio work. They often try and run projects that get their students building games that get them thinking about the wider world, presenting players with ethical problems, environmental challenges and generally things that will help spice up their showreel and make them stand out as thoughtful storytellers.
“We think young people on a course like this should be making as many games as possible. That sounds obvious but I think a lot of courses get bogged down by teaching one particular program, like Unity or Maya. We think it’s important not to get the too addicted to any one thing, they need to be versatile”
After we had left, all we could wonder was why every college didn’t run this way?
This all poses some questions wider questions, like whether it’s possible to be ready for the games industry directly from a Level 3 course - which is a big ask at most colleges.
It seems ELAM is proving it’s possible, but crucially, with long term industry support.
Into Games will be creating a small case study on ELAM’s working methods, successes and the reasons behind some of the decisions they’ve made which we’ll be sharing freely on our website.