Skip to language options | Skip to the search | Skip to the navigation | Skip to the content

Select Language


A Deputy Head's View

My Memories of Chetham’s

I first went to Chetham's for an interview with Harry Vickers in 1973. When I failed to get the job I spent 2 years at a comprehensive school in Oldham before trying again. John Vallins was a bit more perceptive and I eventually arrived at Chetham’s in September 1975. There was a staff meeting on the Monday before term started on the Tuesday. New staff were introduced: John Cleaver from Gordonstoun, Peter Hatfield from Hungary via the Skinners' Company School, and Glyn Jones from a comprehensive in Oldham. Not the most auspicious start, but the only way was up. Looking around, there seemed to be a number of staff who appeared to have been at the School since it was founded in 1653. Having to teach girls was a shock to their system.

The following morning classes needed to be registered before lessons started. Having thought that I had half an hour free, gazing at the staff noticeboard five minutes before registration I noticed my initials against Form 4A. Luckily Steve Pullen, in the next room with 4B, showed me where registers were kept, and things looked up from then on. Then as now it was difficult to tell who was going to make it in the musical world - one of the quiet boys who sat at the back of the class was Stephen Hough who did get a TV appearance with Oscar Peterson.

After one year, with an increasing number of boarders, most lessons moved to eight (later nine) temporary portacabins on the "bomb site". Sixteen years later a large crane lifted these over the College buildings onto the yard while the new boarding house was being built. When the New College House was being planned a group of us met at regular intervals to think about what we wanted and how it could be fitted into the space and budget available. The group included Tony Owen and Nick Dugdale representing boarding, David Usher for music, myself for academic and Colin Woods for maintenance. The Bursar chaired the meetings and eventually we decided to visit two schools which had recently built new boarding accommodation. The first visit was to St Anne's, overlooking Windermere, which grouped each four or five rooms with a sitting room. The next visit was to Rendcomb College which had an old style dormitory complete with metal framed beds. In the event we went for something completely different, many single rooms and some larger, up to four or five beds, with a kitchen on each corridor. By Easter 1994 lessons moved back to the refurbished Nicholls Block, vacated when the senior boy boarders moved into half of the new house. In summer a re-think took place and the senior boys exchanged accommodation with the Millgate girls.

Computers first made an appearance in 1980 when the government provided a 50% grant towards one computer for each school. We chose an RM380Z which had twin floppy disc drives - considered very advanced at the time - and was operated in one of the cupboards in between classrooms. In 1984 I added Head of Computer Studies to my Maths responsibility and we moved to 3 BBC machines which needed a larger room, the only available one being in the Music dept. With the move of classrooms in 1994 the opportunity was taken to equip a new computer lab with 12 Archimedes machines. Subsequent developments have seen these computers replaced with networked PCs, internet and e-mail access for all pupils and a second computer lab in addition to classroom and boarding house machines. Admin computers were introduced later in the day but are now equally extensive.

In 1975 there were just two maintenance staff, Bill Tyrer and his assistant Norman. If anything needed doing then it was as well to do it yourself so, for example, when the classrooms moved into portacabins on the Bomb Site in 1976, none of the stockrooms had shelves for the best part of a year. With major restoration work getting under way in the 1980s the maintenance team expanded to cover most of the trades. We were fortunate to gain Colin Woods to run the department, as repair work then used to happen as soon as it was reported.

At the same time in December 1994 that the Queen officially opened the boarding block on the old bomb site, we had a visit from Hardy Amies, the Queen’s couturier. The reason was that the School yard had had a garden designed to complement the College buildings and the garden was designed by him. The walls, grass and box privet were no problem, but the Portuguese Laurel trees at the centre of each part could only be obtained from a garden centre in North London. At a meeting in September 1994 the Bursar asked if anyone was going to London and could collect these trees. My younger son was starting at London University at the end of that month, but there was no way that two trees, however small, would fit in my car, so the Bursar agreed that I could use a School minibus. By Birmingham my back was aching and my son was not exactly pleased to be turning up to his first day at university in a school minibus, but we eventually found the garden centre and brought the trees back. It took about ten years before they became established, but now look as if they have been there for ever. Gardeners were not much in evidence some years ago but the need for a permanent gardener gradually became clear and there are a number of touches around the School which owe much to their ideas.

In the 1970s the end of the school year tended to be marked by various forms of misbehaviour, such as "National Bollard Day" when, overnight, bollards would appear on the tops of various School buildings. If the pupils risked life and limb putting them up in the dark, the maintenance staff also did to get them down in the light. After a few years the influence of girls led instead to end of year Upper Sixth leavers’ balls, at which they would dress up in their finery and have a good time. Even more recently the Christmas Ball was another reason for Sixth Formers to dress up, while the younger pupils also had their own parties.

In 1984 Chetham's offered an early retirement package to a number of the older staff and John Cleaver (Head of Boys' House), Donald Clarke (Director of Studies) and Brian Raby (Deputy Head) took advantage of this, Donald leaving at the end of December and John and Brian in summer 1985. In September 1984 Michael Asquith (Head of Modern Languages and Head of Day House) was given the title Senior Master and was due to take over parts of Donald’s and Brian’s work. A week before the October half term he was sitting at home marking some work, and died. The whole School went to his funeral. In the subsequent re-jig of responsibilities, Trevor Donald took over the Day House and I became Senior Master.

To cheer the Day House pupils at the end of the year, Trevor Donald started a summer term trip to Alton Towers, which I usually accompanied. This gradually extended to all senior pupils and, more recently, to all of the pupils.

In June each year there is a welcome day for new pupils, originally on a Friday afternoon and Saturday, latterly on Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. These were usually very busy times for me, coming in the middle of the external exam season, as I also collated academic information about new pupils and met all those arriving below the Sixth Form. At 11.20am on Saturday 15th June 1996 a 1½ ton bomb planted by the IRA exploded about 300 yards away from the School. The force of the blast broke about half of our window glass, brought down false ceilings, blew out doors and caused much other damage. In Boys' House sixty windows and frames required complete replacement. A number of people were injured by flying glass with one boy requiring 14 stitches in a wound. For some hours after the explosion there were a further number of bomb alerts until eventually a sense of some normality returned amid the wreckage. Over the weekend there were interruptions by burglar alarms which sounded continuously and during the night by loose glass being knocked out at Victoria Railway Station in order that passengers could resume using it on Monday. In spite of the disruption the pupils seemed to take all of this in their stride, but after a couple of days most of the pupils went home for a very long weekend so that much tidying up could take place.

In 1975 there was no obvious security to stop anyone wandering onto the Chetham's site, apart from the large doors under the gatehouse. During the 1980s we gained a man with a dog and in the early 1990s a full-time security team to be on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This was when the present Security Lodge was built. By the end of the 90s security cameras had also appeared around School and these have gradually extended in number and features.

Chetham's has had a long relationship with the Cathedral, various events taking place across Fennel Street. Until the pedestrianisation of Fennel Street it was always a problem getting the pupils across the road for the weekly Cathedral service. However, this was as nothing compared to the difficulty of the Founder's Day procession crossing the road, as this inevitably moved much slower. In a good year a policeman would turn up to take charge, but this could not be guaranteed and there were some hair-raising moments when motorists became impatient.

Other major events which was involved in were Speech Day and the non-musical aspects of Christmas Music. Some of the organisation could be quite complex but it was always satisfying when the event ran smoothly and no-one (except me) knew what had gone wrong.

Inevitably the culmination of pupils’ academic lives were external exams. In spite of the substantial time given to music, most pupils worked hard and gained good exam results, well above the level which you might expect from a school which has no academic test. Results have steadily improved over the years. During the 1990s we appeared a number of times in high positions in newspaper league tables, but more recently have been disadvantaged in these by the reduced number of subjects which our pupils take.

Being a teacher is not just about what goes on in the classroom and over the years I took part in all sorts of different activities in addition to supervising musical events. For about six years I ran a model railway society and took trips to exhibitions. Mike Lindup remembered a visit to an exhibition in Whitefield which took ages because of the thick fog which came down as soon as we had started off. Ironically the model railway club had to disband as the School gained the Long Millgate building in the early 1980s because there was no room anywhere for the layout. I then switched to a computer club until, after about three years, the pupils knew more about computers than I did. A couple of trips which I accompanied come to mind. The first was to the Settle- Carlisle railway line with Robert Macfarlane driving the minibus. He dropped us off at the Ribblehead viaduct and met us at Dent Head Station. On the hike on the moorland over the tunnel we passed by Bleak Moor and it certainly lived up to its name. There were some very noisy boys on the trip until they were stunned into silence as we passed through a large group of gypsies at the Appleby horse fair, after which nothing more was heard until we got back to School. The other memorable trip was on 8th May 1994 when Trevor Donald took a trip to Haworth to give his A level English groups a feel for the Brontes. This time I drove the minibus but still found myself yomping across a boggy moor until we got to Top Withens, which has a sign on proclaiming that it is not the original of the house featured in Wuthering Heights. At least it was a sunny day.

Theatre trips were a bit more genteel but, regularly starting out during the Manchester rush hour, we made some last-minute arrivals at Buxton and Newcastle-under-Lyme. It fascinated me seeing the notes which pupils had to write both during and after a performance and it clearly made them very hungry as they always wanted me to stop at a fish and chip shop on the return. The only time I refused was when we started back at 11pm from a performance of the Caucasian Chalk Circle in Liverpool.

Reporting systems changed somewhat over the years. Originally we had relatively short reports for all pupils at the end of each term with Sixth Formers having one-line-per-subject reports at half terms, too. Younger pupils had report cards with effort and achievement grades at monthly intervals. Following these the Director of Studies would call a meeting to discuss any pupils who had moved by one full grade or more since the previous rating. We soon learned that, if meetings were not to go on for the whole of lunchtime, then it was wise only to move by fractions of a grade (e.g. A- to B, or 2 to 2/3). Unfortunately for our lunch breaks, all that that meant was that the few pupils to be discussed were each given a lot of discussion time. Later on reports were to get longer and in some ways more prescriptive about what they included, but not necessarily any more informative. I used to read reports on new pupils and in the early days of "records of achievement”" in the late 1980s I could be ploughing through 50 pages of information hoping not to miss the vital parts which our staff needed to know before the pupils arrived at Chetham's. By the late 1990s much of the reporting system could be computerised, giving the documents a much more professional look but removing some of the quirkiness displayed by a number of staff.

The most important inspection in the survival of Chetham's was undoubtedly that of 1980, following which the DES grant scheme was extended to include us. If that had not happened then the School would most likely not have survived, at least in its present form. Another milestone was in 1990 when a team of HMC inspectors decided that we were suitable to join the 250 or so top schools in HMC. The Ofsted inspection of 1996 was the first under the new regime and I had the job of collating the paperwork and sending the relevant parts to each of the ten inspectors. In total the papers weighed 14kg, but when the inspectors were with us I got the impression that much of this had remained unread.

The buildings around Chetham’s have undergone many changes over the years. The most obvious sign of this is Long Millgate which used to be lined with buildings along the road. The demolition of these started in 1981, creating space for a rather scruffy car park, but was not finished until 1992, after which the area was surfaced to look rather smarter. In the post-IRA bomb regeneration the Urbis centre was built with the outer cladding beginning to be fitted in August 2001 and the public opening in June 2002. At least that meant that Fennel Street and Long Millgate lost the streams of traffic which had made them such a hazard, as long as you remember to dodge the large stone blocks which have caused serious damage to the shins of the unwary. On Hunt’s Bank between Chetham’s and Victoria Station was a disused office block which, by 1975, had suffered serious fire damage. Demolition began as the School exams were taking place in summer 1978. At the end of term the demolition stopped until we returned in September, when it restarted. The subsequent landscaping improved the area and the clear space meant that we could hear the trains much better, the train spotters amongst us being in no doubt when a Deltic was passing through on a Newcastle to Liverpool express at about 10.25am. Facing Palatine Building used to be Exchange Station and this also suffered demolition in 1981, the space simply becoming a large car park which is still in use today.

Glyn Jones
Former Deputy Headmaster