The Minster School in York announce new nursery facilities
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 June 2017
A new nursery is about to open at one of the country’s leading choir schools. Heather Dixon reports.
As a professional singer, Alex Donaldson’s dulcet tones have reverberated through some of the most prestigious venues in the country, including St Paul’s Cathedral in London and York Minster, often as a member of The Sixteen, one of the world’s most renowned choirs. He appreciates more than most the uplifting power of the human voice.
So when, in 1988, he was offered a teaching post at York’s celebrated independent Minster School – renowned as one of the UK’s finest choir schools – it was too good an opportunity to miss.
These days, however, the only time Alex gets to sing is in the shower. Since 2004 he has been headmaster of the school which is underpinned by traditional values of respect, courtesy and good manners, alongside a progressive and challenging curriculum. Over the last 13 years he has steered the school through the red tape and ever increasing demands of modern education and, with his dedicated staff, set thousands of children on the road to success in all its forms.
Alex needs look no further than his own modest upbringing to understand how the right support can help most children to reach their full potential, whatever their circumstances. ‘I came from a very ordinary family – my father was a carpenter, my mother took on various jobs to support the family – and I had a very happy childhood,’ he says. ‘I remember my parents going off to work in the long summer holidays and I probably wouldn’t see them again until teatime. I’d kick a ball around with my friends, ride around on my bike and go to the park, probably getting up to mischief, but we spent a lot of time just playing outdoors and enjoying the sense of independence and freedom that went with it.’
Born and raised in Dundee, Alex went to his local primary and comprehensive schools before becoming the first member of the family to go to university, first as a choral scholar at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he studied history, and later training as a teacher at King’s College, London. He then studied singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Now, as a father of three and grandfather of two himself Alex understands the long term value of early investment in children’s all-round well being, the importance of play in their development and the intrinsic benefits of having love and security at home. ‘I would much rather see children interacting and confident than socially isolated in front of a screen, and enjoying down time instead of being dragged from one after school club to another,’ he says.
It’s with this in mind that he is about to open a new nursery next door to the current early years facilities in the Georgian Red House in Minster Yard.
It took nearly three years of extensive planning negotiations, hold-ups caused by the discovery of medieval street remains and intense scrutiny from various historic associations to finally get the project under way; it’s been 10 years from the initial idea to fruition.
But it has been worth the wait for the new nursery: an architect-designed oak and glass extension and refurbishment of the White House, a former nun’s house and one-time art gallery. When it opens in September, it will provide a light, safe indoor/outdoor play environment for children as young as three, alongside new junior music rooms and other facilities to augment pre-prep.
Breathing new life into the timber framed scheduled monument (‘It couldn’t be more listed,’ says Alex) is the latest development of a school which was founded in 627 AD by Paulinus, the first Archbishop of York, for the education of boy choristers. Throughout the turmoil of subsequent centuries, its choristers continued to lead the worship at York Minster and the old school buildings date from 1832.
Since 1987, the choir school has been a fully co-educational preparatory school with its own pre-prep department. In 1995, the dean and chapter made history when they agreed to establish girl choristers in parallel to the existing boys’ choir, and a year later the school expanded once again with the opening of a nursery class. There are now 180 children on the school roll aged between three and 13 years of whom 40 are choristers.
‘During my 29 years as a member of staff at the Minster School, I have seen the school undergo a great many changes but we have retained the essence of an ancient and proud tradition,’ says Alex. He is supported by ‘amazing’ staff (including his wife, Jane) and he never tires of working in the shadow of one of the greatest historic buildings in the world.
His one regret as headmaster has been giving up his singing. ‘I really miss singing in a choir,’ he says. ‘I miss the physical pleasure of singing. It’s not like playing an instrument, because the instrument is inside you and part of you. It’s one of the few activities that links the left and right sides of the brain and its benefits are amazing. I should try to make time to sing again but at the moment it’s just not possible.’
Alex considers himself a very lucky man. ‘Every day I work in and around one of the most beautiful areas of the city, with York Minster right on my doorstep,’ he says. ‘I have been shortlisted for many jobs but nothing comes close to working here.’
To find out more about The Minster School in Minster Yard, York call 0844 939 0000 or visit minsterschoolyork.co.uk