Former Duchess’s Community High School student Helena Davidson looks round the new Alnwick school building and reflects on her time at the old split-site in Howling Lane and Bailiffgate.
Old becomes new this week as the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick opens the doors of its new building ready for the new academic year. As an ex-student of the Duchess’s, I was eager to have a look around and to see how it compared to the school that I remembered.
I was immediately confronted by a rather impersonal, office-like exterior that left me longing for the old stone of Bailiffgate, however as soon as I saw friendly faces of the staff who I had known throughout my time there, I was immediately relieved and reminded that - although the outside had changed - the heart of the school remained the same.
My expectations were entirely based on the plans I had briefly seen when the new development was announced, coupled with some minor prejudices towards the change as a student loyal to the old building; however, I was won over easily enough as I was shown around the corridors, and into the new classrooms.
Everything was so new, clean and functional which was a world away from the dilapidated old facilities from before. I was also surprised by how light and airy the building was, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and skylights letting in lots of natural light, which gave it a very modern feel.
Whereas previously, there had been no core space, due to the split-site arrangement, the school is now all linked with the dining hall next to the main hall, and the corridors constructed as ‘fingers’ off the central block, so that there is no reason to leave the building.
Now, this may sound claustrophobic, but the benefit can be seen as it will mean the end of treacherous treks between main school and Bailiffgate in the freezing winter. For that I do envy them. The canteen will be open all day, serving drinks and snacks for staff and students alike during free periods and break times, which will prompt the dining space to become a social and study area for sixth form students alongside the allocated study area.
Both areas are, like the rest of the building, much better in terms of facilities and location and as Year 13 student Dan Lyst told me: “I think people will like it and it will inspire people to work harder.”
One crucial aspect of sixth-form life that is still under review however, is whether Year 13s will be allowed out of the building at break and lunchtimes to go into town. On moving up to sixth form, this a privilege that was eagerly awaited by younger pupils and helped us to re-focus with the daily inhalation of a Granny’s meal deal. Now students will only have the Sainsbury’s cafe, or Mcdonald’s a short trip away, meaning that local cafes beloved of previous sixth formers may lose out on trade.
Despite the move away from the town centre, there are more opportunities for work experience due to the close proximity to larger businesses.
Seeing the enthusiasm of both students and teachers enabled me, too, to understand all the benefits of the new school. I really was impressed by what had frequently been described as a ‘flat-pack’ school, although it was still clear there was a lot more to add in order to make the school The Duchess’s again.
The lack of character was pervasive and was the main thing that stood out as an aspect that was lost with the old school, but the draughty buildings and run-down facilities were a source of laughter for past pupils of the school, the source of a plethora of anecdotes, whereas the new site is high-tech and state-of-the-art. This all stems from rose-tinted memories of my time at the high school. Now, though, teachers can simply focus on teaching, as opposed to worrying about a leaking ceiling every time it rains.
Overall, I am envious of those new students starting this year, who will go through the years having exceptional facilities and exciting new opportunities open to them, such as the introduction of Spanish lessons to the curriculum, and a sports hall catered for everyone. However, I still wouldn’t take back my years at the old school, no matter how dysfunctional it was.