A thousand years (or more) of lessons

The Telegraph, 21/02/15, times change in the world of education. But for three long-established schools the ethos of learning remains the same, says Eleanor Doughty. HMC members, Leo Winkley, St Peter's School, York, Jeremy Walker, King's Rochester and King's Canterbury feature.

It is not unusual for a grand English school to have a long and interesting history. Some date to Tudor England and Henry VIII, others Victorian England and a time that can seem black and white to our technicolour lives in 2015.

But a handful of not-so-grand schools are more ancient still – foundations that predate Wolf Hall and the dissolution of the monasteries, and even the Battle of Agincourt. Some were established before the first millennium.

“Brown is good,” is the term that Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter’s School, York, the third oldest school in the country, coined by accident. It has become something of a catchphrase within the school “for whatever it is that we are”.

Brown is in reference to the unusually coloured uniform. “There used to be brown caps and brown blazers. As far as I know it’s always been the uniform. It may go back to monastic browns, monkish sort of browns.”

The school dates to 627AD and, in its 1,300-year history, has moved around a few times. It now sits on its ninth site, a half-mile walk from York Minster. Through the school’s rugby posts – fittingly painted with brown stripes – the Minster is in clear view. “There’s an element of joining up [the] historical dots,” Winkley says. “Particularly through the dark ages when the Vikings were in charge. Frankly, education and learning went into a bit of a hole during that time.”

St Peter’s is one of the few northern boarding schools – few, compared to the south’s near-monopoly. Winkley describes it as “a local school with a strong regional identity”, most children being from Yorkshire.

He doesn’t think about school rivalries, though, because “there is a collegiateness about independent schools. We’re all technically competing but there’s a real sense of sharing, and the sector is stronger when we have lots of different kinds of schools.”

York has a handful of independent schools: Queen Margaret’s School is seven miles out of town, and the two Quaker schools, The Mount and Bootham School, are just around the corner. “If you want to get a cheap round of applause at [an old Peterites’ dinner], you tell them that you’ve just beaten Ampleforth,” Winkley grins.

But how does a school so old keep current? “I want the place to be traditional but also have a sense of personality,” Winkley says. “Children are ultra-conservative about change, ultra-reactionary and very protective of their school. Once it happens twice, it’s a tradition. They say, 'Oh you can’t not do that’, so things can become traditions quite quickly and have that sense of ancientness even though they were only invented three years ago. We’re not the sort of place that’s got lots of quirky traditions, but the prefects wear gowns.”

Many aspects of the school are much older than three years. On the lawn outside the front of the building is a large tree on a mound; that mound was used to fire cannon shots at the castle during the Civil War. “You can look out there and think, 'blimey!’ ”

History is all around them, and one notable alumnus made his place in it quite clearly: Guy Fawkes. “We have a certain vested interest in making sure our pupils are politically aware,” Winkley says. “Obviously, we’re using the correct channels for these views to be expressed.”

The pupils themselves are very genuine, their headmaster says, as talk turns to the presentation of public schools in the modern world. “There’s no St Peter’s veneer – there’s a St Peter’s-ness, but it tends to be about people being open-eyed and straight forward. [They’re] keen to get on, and ambitious, but not in a narrow-eyed kind of way.”

Historical evidence is difficult to hold on to, certainly over a millennium. It is a problem that the King’s School, Rochester, has also had. Founded in 604AD, Rochester is another cathedral school. Traditions can be found quite literally as you walk around; the prefects wear boaters and blue and red academic gowns.

Morning “chapel” – for most schools with this facility held in an average-sized space – takes place in Rochester Cathedral. Pupils are Roffensians, and later Old Roffensians, after the school song Carmen Roffense.

At Rochester, traditions are maintained “with ease”, explains the Principal, Jeremy Walker. “It is hard to ignore the impressive past of the school and its surroundings when, every day, we move between lessons in the shadow of the best-preserved Norman keep in Europe and the magnificence of the cathedral.”

In the 21st century, Rochester’s ancient traditions are now high speed and equipped with Wi-Fi – bang up to date.

Just 30 miles away in Canterbury is Kent’s “best-kept secret”, the King’s School. Founded in 597AD, it is, as old boy Michael Morpurgo suggested, “a university for small people”. Unlike most other schools, it has no singular main building, and consequently no corridors. There is no bustling in narrow passageways; instead, pupils walk around an ancient campus from building to building to get to lessons.

Once inside, there are Hogwartsian spiral staircases; the journey to the endearingly lived-in History of Art room winds it way up to a room that, at first glance, appears to be a library. Departments are called faculties, and the boarding houses look like Oxbridge colleges, even down to their varied age-related architectural characteristics and the balance between old and new.

“Pupils go from here to Cambridge and they feel it is absolutely a home from home. It’s exactly the same,” explains Graham Sinclair, the registrar.

Their own chapel “just about” fits all 850 pupils in: on Sundays, they occupy their next-door neighbour Canterbury Cathedral. The prefects – “Purples” – are one for every house. George Booth-Clibborn is head of Linacre house, but is quick to say that there’s no “massive hierarchy”. “I get a really nice room, and that’s essentially it,” he jokes.

“Purples” are afforded some traditional liberties that range from skipping the lunch queue to walking across Green Court – a lawn in the centre of the school – at certain times of the year. They also wear purple robes over their uniform; this, for girls, includes a brooch instead of a tie, and usual garb is a wing-collared shirt. “Even though the girls don’t like doing up the brooches, they would hate to be rid of them,” Sinclair explains.

Debating is “big” at Canterbury, too, but almost everything is. At King’s, it is also “cool to be passionate”, Sinclair explains. “If you’re a wonderful chess player, that’s as cool to the captain of rugby as his vice captain, because that’s your talent. There’s a huge respect for people’s passions.”

The school is also hugely high-achieving. Last year King’s racked up 86 per cent A*-B grades at A-level, and casually mentioned in conversation are household-name alumni from Olympic skiers to famous chefs. “It’s very busy here, but you can be as busy as you want to be. You can take on as many activities as you can manage.” explains Tatyana Kalaydjian Serraino, Purple: and head of the sixth form Bailey house.

But is it pushy? “It’s pushy in a good way,” George says. “They want to get the best out of you. They will push you academically and set big targets, but it’s all for you.”

“We don’t wear it on our sleeves that we’re an old school,” Sinclair says. “It is part of them. Maybe the idea of tradition – the age of the school – gives us an ease.”

While some parts of the school have their place in history – Year 9s are “Shells” and Year 10s “Removes”, as at a variety of other public schools – other things happen organically. “Every Christmas we have to watch Love Actually,” George laughs in the common room of Linacre house.

And somehow one feels that, “oh, you can’t not do that”, would be appropriate, if anyone tried to stop it.

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