Saffron Walden County High School: a new stop on the touring circuit?

Saffron Hall. Photo: Ben Ealovega
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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There aren’t many schools that can boast an international concert venue for its school hall, certainly no state school. And there’s surely no school of any kind that has its own bar.

That's what Saffron Hall is, though. It opened recently with a fanfare commissioned from the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies, and a concert by the Britten Sinfonia. Its opening season boasts the Brodsky Quartet, Sir Andrew Motion, Patricia Routledge, the Hilliard Ensemble and John Lill, and it has been devised by an in-house professional programmer. Music is the emphasis, and there are positive discussions with one of London’s major symphony orchestras coming in season two. And the ambition is that Saffron Hall will become a regular stop on the touring itineraries of theatre companies from the Royal Shakespeare Company down.

[pullquote]The ambition is that Saffron Hall will become a regular stop on the touring itineraries of theatre companies[/pullquote]

But the 730-seat Saffron Hall’s primary function is as the school hall for Saffron Walden County High School, a state secondary school that, almost unwittingly, is offering a new model for the arts and education, and for performance of the highest level in regional, even rural, communities.

The new hall is of the highest acoustic spec with flexible seating and stage, so that it can have an orchestra pit if required. There are rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, even a green room. Any theatre company or orchestra of whatever standing can perform here with complete confidence.

And there is no state funding, except perhaps at second hand from what the school has, as its head puts it, “saved up”. The bulk of the £10 million plus costs have come from a private, anonymous, donor through his company’s charitable trust. It happens that he is a music lover, and amateur performer as a bass player and a member of the local choral society, whose children have all been educated at the school.

He has made his millions from a mini-cab/airport transfer service, Yellow Cars, and has supported SWCHS for years in various ways. But this is the biggest single donation to a state school, and he made the proviso that though it was to be for the school’s hall, it had also to create a community facility and one that could earn some income. There is no other venue in this bit of North Essex where he and his family live, and the local orchestra choral societies have hitherto had to play in the local church, and he was determined that not only should that lack be filled, but that the best music could be heard in his neighbourhood. The school itself contributed about £1m from its trust, and Yellow Cabs are providing revenue funding for the next couple of years.

John Hartley, the head, is beside himself with chuffedness. His is an unusually large academy school with over 2,000 pupils from a catchment of a 25 mile radius, and at over 600 one of the biggest sixth forms in the country – which means increased grants from the Higher Education Funding Council. It was never particularly known for its arts education, but it has always had a permanent music staff as well as a drama staff, and the new hall has prompted Hartley to start a new music academy in his sixth form, 20-25 pupils who he believes will be attracted to join at 16 by the new music facilities.

He believes this can be done elsewhere, that all that is required is ambition, drive and a local multi-millionaire who cares about education and the arts.

There is no doubt that this is a magnificent development, good to look at, to be in, and to hear music. It will operate all year round, with master classes and in the summer, perhaps, a music and drama festival. Its concert tickets are for sale through the tourist information office in Saffron Walden, and the top price is £25.

The government loves it and proclaims it a vindication of its policy of encouraging individual philanthropy, and so it might be. But can it ever happen elsewhere? What are the chances of all those ducks lining up again? This is not so much a vindication of government policy as a condemnation of all governments’ attitudes to the arts in school as tolerating them as long as they don't interfere with the proper curriculum. SWCHS has shown not only that the arts are important but that they enhance both the school and the community, and that it’s time state schools took more of a community lead. But Building Schools for the Future has been scrapped and the only chance is for enlightened elements of our society getting together to make it happen. We can only hope…