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Durham choristers in school merger

27 November 2020

Chorister School in Durham is to merge with its larger neighbour, Durham School

Durham School

Durham School, seen from the roof of the chapel

Durham School, seen from the roof of the chapel

THE Chorister School in Durham, which, historically, has educated the cathedral choristers, is to merge with its larger neighbour, Durham School, it was announced this week. The two independent schools will operate as the Durham Cathedral Schools Foundation.

The possibility of a merger was explored some years ago, and talks reopened last year amid concerns over the decline in pupil applications to independent schools nationally, especially in the north-east. “The concept of a merger was revisited, and this time was viable and attractive,” a foundation spokesman said. “The pandemic added to the equation, but was not the driving force, or the deciding factor.”

Rob Ribchester, who chairs the Durham School governors and will head the new foundation’s board, described it as “a wonderful opportunity to create a merged school which will offer outstanding academic, pastoral, and co-curricular opportunities for all pupils, and enhance the provision of independent education within the city of Durham”.

His deputy will be the Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Andrew Tremlett, who was “delighted that we will be safeguarding the choral tradition in the north-east of England for the next generation”.

Both schools trace their heritage from the 15th century, when Bishop Thomas Langley issued letters patent authorising the foundation of two chantries. Their chaplains were to be “sufficiently advanced and instructed, the one in grammar, the other in song, that one of them can keep school in grammar, the other in song in the city of Durham”.

They remained separate, but were run by the cathedral until the late 1990s, when the Dean and Chapter set Durham School as its own legal entity. The Chapter is still represented on its governors, and it is landlord of some of its buildings. “The creation of the foundation brings the wheel full circle, and re-establishes a closer and more dynamic relationship for the good of both parties,” the spokesman said.

The Chorister School has about 150 pupils, aged from three to 13, including 30 of the cathedral’s choir. The cathedral hopes to increase this to 40. Choristers’ fees — about £12,000 a year — will be reduced by the Chapter to £5000, in recognition of the 15 hours a week that they devote to the musical life of the cathedral. In cases of financial hardship, they could be reduced to zero.

Durham School, where the fees reach £35,000 a year, has 375 students and 145 pupils at its prep school. It launched an offshoot in Qatar in 2019, and plans to open another in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in January.

Its alumni include the political adviser Dominic Cummings and the entertainer Alexander Armstrong. Old boys of the choir school include Tony Blair and the comedian Rowan Atkinson.

The new principal of the combined schools will be the head of Durham School, Kieran McLaughlin, who will have a stall in the cathedral quire representing the foundation, but will not be a Chapter member.

The head of the Chorister School, Ian Wicks, will step down when the merger is completed next September. He “warmly welcomed” the amalgamation: “Fundamental to me, it secures the future of the choral foundation of Durham Cathedral in a way that will make it possible for any child from the north-east and beyond to benefit from an unparalleled musical education, and sing to the glory of God in Durham Cathedral regardless of their financial means.”

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