Lofty ceilings but down-to-earth ideals

12th October 2007 at 01:00
In keeping with their charitable status, the Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools have opened the doors of their grand performing arts centre to local community groups and schools but they have their detractors

Private schools are working hard to prove they are a public benefit, now that their charitable status is at risk. In addition to publicising pupils' volunteer work, highlighting their contribution to the education of teachers and promoting their outreach work, many are allowing access to some fabulous facilities.

But building partnerships with the state sector is not always easy, even for those with a long-standing track record of opening their doors to whoever is willing to enter.

Last month, the Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville junior, Mary Erskine senior for girls and Stewart's Melville senior for boys unveiled their new pound;3.5 million performing arts centre, a space that could rival Edinburgh's prestigious Queen's Hall.

The centre will be open for community use, and the schools have raised a Pounds 30,000 fund to subsidise use by schools and community groups. But they have met with mixed responses to their attempts to attract other educators.

The original entrance to the Elizabethan-style edifice that was Daniel Stewart's College in Edinburgh was grand, despite its purpose being to house and educate destitute boys. Built in the mid-1800s, it had to be large enough to allow a carriage into its courtyard, surrounded by turreted walls and unglazed windows. The gatehouses were home to barbers, shoemakers and, when needed, a mortuary.

Within a few years of opening, the courtyard was enclosed and divided up to provide more rooms for teaching. It remained so until the 1970s, when the school didn't need the extra rooms.

The space was restored to its open-plan origins. But what was left was not the ideal space for assemblies and performances. "What we had was a large barn with dreadful acoustics and bad sightlines," says Bryan Lewis, headmaster of the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville junior school and vice-principal of the two senior schools.

During his 33-year career, first as head of classics at the senior schools and for the past 20 as head of the large junior school, he has hankered after a space fit for assemblies and musical performances a school of 1,200 pupils puts on.

Finally, last month, the school unveiled a restructuring of the courtyard that rivals any professional concert hall. One of the problems with the original space was lack of height. As a listed building, raising the roof was not an option, so the architects, Simpson Browns, dropped the floor.

The space houses state-of-the-art lighting, banks of seating for 800 that fold away at the press of a button, two partition walls that can form two studios, and a small hall. The sound proofing is so good that when the pipe band is rehearsing in one studio, the dance group practising in the other, cannot hear it.

More than half the cost of the pound;3.5 million centre was met by the school coffers, the rest by fundraising from alumni, parents and friends of the school. Even the pound;30,000 slush fund was raised within the school.

Eight years ago, when the school received pound;2 million of Lottery money towards a new pound;3 million sports facility at the Mary Erskine site, there was an outcry. The school argued that it got the money because the centre is the home of the Scottish Cricket Union and the official National Centre for Cricket Excellence. It is also open to the public.

"We provided the land and some of the funding towards its construction, and we pay for it to be maintained and managed. In return, we get to use it during the day," explains Mr Lewis. "But at the evenings and weekends, we have to book for use, like everyone else."

David Gray, the principal of the two senior schools, says: "The sports centre is used by more than 60 outside clubs and the public has spent more than 77,000 hours using it over the past year. We have a tradition of working with our community and we see the performing arts centre as another means of bringing our school and the community together."

The schools pride themselves on their musical reputation. Pupils have performed in 450 shows and operas over the past 10 years.

The schools also offer their 2,800 pupils a choice of 21 instruments to learn, with 43 instrumental visiting teachers and six full-time music teachers giving at total of 1,000 lessons a week. Of the 10 per cent of the schools' pupils who are on some sort of bursary or scholarship, seven are on music scholarships and 15 receive free instrumental tuition.

Five years ago, Mr Gray launched the Silvestri Scholar, in honour of the famous Romanian composer Constantin Silvestri. Every year, the school offers one outstanding musical candidate from Romania a full musical scholarship at the school, including living costs and travelling expenses. Ancuta Nite, the first pupil to receive the scholarship, graduated with a first from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The schools continued to support her financially throughout her degree.

But the schools also hope to share their musical expertise with youngsters in the more challenging areas of north Edinburgh. Over the past few years, the junior school has linked up with a number of primaries, including Royston, releasing its full-time, ex-professional choreographer Jane Duffy to work with groups of Royston children.

"We are hoping to be able to offer this again and now that we have the centre, we would like to bring the children here sometimes to rehearse and perform. Travel isn't an issue, as we would use our own minibuses to transport them," says Mr Lewis.

The only problem could be a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the primary schools. Subsequent attempts to link up with Royston and Pilton have been turned down. Now Mr Lewis has begun talks with community groups instead, to encourage participation.

Meanwhile, Stewart's Melville and Mary Erskine is hoping to resurrect its Choir Friday, possibly on a different day of the week. Born from a project three years ago that culminated in a concert in the Usher Hall, Choir Friday's aim was to bring together children who liked to sing. But when planning for the original concert, Mr Lewis faced problems. "I wrote to the surrounding primary schools and initially had a favourable response, but suddenly eight pulled out. We went ahead with the pupils we had and they did perform. It was a wonderful concert," he says.

Mr Lewis was disappointed with the response because he suspected it was political. "I wrote to the council, but there was nothing it could do. After that, we continued to offer Choir Friday, but we feel there is so much going on on Friday afternoons that it might be better to consider another day after school."

While state schools may be reluctant to grasp the hand held out by the Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools, others are not. Even before the new performing arts centre was officially opened, The Yard, which provides creative play for children and young people with additional support needs, approached the centre's manager, Chris Duffy, about using it for a performance. Commercial groups have been showing an interest too. The schools plans to subsidise community use by charging professional groups.

"We want to break down the barriers and welcome other schools into ours," says Mr Gray. "This is not about charitable status; it is something we have always tried to do."

Passing the test

Earlier this summer, the High School of Dundee became the first independent school to be grilled by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator to see if it would pass the charity test. It did, but the rest of the 70-plus independent educators in Scotland cannot breathe easily. OSCR made it clear that not every school would automatically qualify.

Every independent school would have to show, like Dundee High, that its fees were not unduly restrictive and that its benefit outweighed any restrictions caused by charging for education. Organisations offering similar activities could not assume they would have a similar outcome.

The loss of charitable status would cost independent schools dearly in lost tax exemptions and gift aid, worth more than pound;4.5 million. Already, parents choosing the independent route have seen fees increase by 40 per cent in five years, according to a report by the Bank of Scotland. The loss of tax exemptions could push them up further.


The Mary Erskine School and Daniel Stewart's College, which was amalgamated with Melville College in 1972, have strong charitable roots.

In 1694, Mary Erskine, a financially astute widow, donated money to help fund a school for fatherless girls.

More than 100 years later, Daniel Stewart, a Gaelic-speaking son of Perthshire crofters, left money to found a school for destitute boys, to be invested until it reached pound;40,000, enough for a school.

But Daniel Stewart's College almost didn't get built. By 1845, when the fund had reached pound;80,000 the trustees argued there were too many institutions of that type in Edinburgh and applied to the Lord Advocate to build a home for "incurables" instead. They were refused.

In 1848, an architect was appointed to design the school which opened seven years later, offering places to 50 boys, mostly the sons of labouring or artisan families.

Melville College was founded by the Rev Robert Cunningham in 1832 as the Edinburgh Institution for Mathe-matics and Language at 59 George Street. The school started with 60 pupils and quickly became a success. The boys wore red blazers as Rev Cunningham was of the opinion that bright colours were better than the dowdy uniforms of most schools of the time.

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