COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny – A tale of two Ripon schools

Ripon Grammar School  continues to thrive 50 years after becoming co-educational.
Ripon Grammar School continues to thrive 50 years after becoming co-educational.
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Last weekend Ripon Grammar School played host to former students (or perhaps, more appropriately, pupils) and staff who had been at the school when the old Boys’ Grammar amalgamated with the former Girls’ High School in 1962. Fifty years on, the co-educational school is flourishing – and has recently been rated as outstanding by Ofsted.

It might not have been so, of course. The school’s annual publication The Riponian reported in its last boys-only year that there was “a tense apprehension in the air . . . the atmosphere of the hospital waiting room; or the eerie silence before the first crash of thunder is heard from approaching storm-clouds. Or perhaps, as when a buffalo, dying besides [sic] an arid water-hole, senses the parasite crawling over its rotting carcase . . . ”.

‘menace’

This ‘approaching menace’ of the girls was viewed with trepidation, of course; but all in the event went remarkably smoothly. As the next year’s Riponian reported “the delicate process of grafting the new school on to the old has passed with remarkably little friction and has left no scars . . . we wondered how we could survive, yet here we are unscathed”. And by 1969, when the first-form pupils who had joined the amalgamated school in 1962 were the sixth-form leavers, the Riponian noted that “those who remain will owe them a debt for the important part they played in establishing high standards in the many branches of school life made possible by the new school and its splendid amenities”.

To some people, of course, the fact that after 50 years it still remains a grammar school is anathema. The various schemes to make it comprehensive have not yet succeeded, and seem unlikely to do so in the current political climate. Whatever your views, it cannot be denied that RiponGrammar School in its merged form is a success – and with its enhanced buildings over recent years to supplement the extensions of the early 1960s, it will, no doubt, continue to be so.

Just two years before the grammar school was established in its revised co-educational state, a new school opened in Ripon to provide preparatory education for the cathedral choristers and for others.

Taking over the former St Olave’s School on its Whitcliffe Lane site, Ripon Cathedral Choir School opened in September 1960. Over the next 50 years it offered not only sound teaching and excellent examination results for many children but also a home for the choristers.

‘value’

Now Ripon Cathedral Choir School has closed, and its pupils including the choristers will, if all goes to plan, be at Cundall Manor – or Ripon Cundall Manor as it will become from September. This will be a change at least as great as that for the girls of the former high school who were moved (not as far admittedly) to their new grammar school home in 1962.

This column is mostly about architecture and related subjects, so, beyond expressing regret that the Choir School could not continue much beyond its 50 years and wishing its students and its staff good luck for the future, this is no place to comment on the reasons for its demise.

But the future of the site it has occupied for so long, and the buildings that occupy it, are of some concern to Ripon Civic Society.

Of the buildings, most are of little architectural value – among them a series of huts and the adjoining Dalton Hall and associated rooms. The hall, which doubled as a sports hall and concert hall, with stage, is little more than a shed, and its loss would probably not be mourned by most people except for sentimental reasons. The main school building is a slightly different case. Although altered for scholastic use, at its heart is the former grandstand from which race-goers watched the horses when the school grounds were Ripon’s racecourse. The building is even said to be haunted by the ghost of a jockey! It would be a pity if this link with the past was lost by demolishing this building; it would fairly easily convert into several good houses.

‘evolve’

When, two-and-a-half months ago, Ripon Civic Society responded to the then plan to relocate the Choir School, it said that “in the event that the site becomes available for development at a later stage and not dependent upon the school’s relocation, Ripon Civic Society would only be likely to support the conversion of the main building to residential use along with appropriate scale development on the footprint of ancillary buildings such as are approved for demolition and the retention of the playing field for use by others”. This remains the position, though, of course, the Society will examine in detail any plans that are put forward for the site.

Schools need to evolve and react to changing circumstances. Some can do so more flexibly than others. Over the last 50 years Ripon Grammar School has been threatened by differing theories, both political and educational, and has survived. The Choir School has thrived but then faltered. We wish both schools, in whatever form (and in whatever buildings!) the coming decades finds them, a sound and stable future.