Wearside Echoes: Still top of the class

FIRST CLASS: The first day of lessons at Monkwearmouth Schoo's new Torver Crescent site inl February 1962.
FIRST CLASS: The first day of lessons at Monkwearmouth Schoo's new Torver Crescent site inl February 1962.
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A SCHOOL which launched a new era of education on Wearside is celebrating a landmark date.

“A provocative design for a provocative type of school – that’s what is going up behind the Seaburn Dene Estate,” the Echo reported in 1962.

Just three days later, on Tuesday, February 6, 1962, the 720 pupils and teachers of Monkwearmouth Grammar School left their long–term home at Swan Street for a bright new future in Torver Crescent.

The £275,000 school – Sunderland’s first purpose–built comprehensive – boasted large playing fields, modern laboratories and high–tech lecture rooms equipped for film and slide shows.

“Education must be a weapon of survival to Britain,” George Chetwynd, director of the North East Development Council, told pupils during the official opening ceremony.

“It is the first guarantee of our scientific and technical future. I welcome Sunderland’s decision to come to the forefront of education and develop some of its schools on comprehensive lines.”

Today, 50 years on, the school continues to offer education for all – and its list of past pupils includes actors, authors, sports stars, TV presenters, teachers, doctors, scientists and journalists.

“Monkwearmouth School means so much to so many,” said headteacher Steve Wilkinson. “Many young people have gone on to have very successful careers and have happy memories of school.

“As a school, Monkwearmouth goes back about 80 years, but 50 years ago today the ‘new’ school opened at Torver Crescent. This is something we want to celebrate this year.”

Monkwearmouth first opened its doors in Swan Street during the depression years of the 1930s, operating as a Central School for youngsters hoping to enter clerical professions.

Post-war educational changes saw it become a grammar school in 1949 but, just a few years later, it was earmarked as Sunderland’s first comprehensive – and a new site was built at Torver Crescent.

“Today was one of the most exciting in their school lives for the pupils of the old Monkwearmouth Grammar, for they became pupils at Sunderland’s first comprehensive, ” reported the Echo back in 1962.

These 720 Wearside “pioneers” were eventually to be joined by hundreds of other students, with the school gradually extended over a three–phase scheme.

The old grammar school system remained in place, however, until 1973, when the 11–plus exam was finally dropped and the school became Monkwearmouth Comprehensive.

“After nearly five years as headteacher I am beginning to really understand what the school means to its community,” said Mr Wilkinson.

“At a recent awards evening at Sunderland Empire we celebrated achievements of our current students, and those who have just left to move on to bigger and greater things.

“It struck me that all the commemorative awards we were giving out had their own history, and came from a different era, but were still relevant to today’s youngsters.

“Thinking about the relevance of this has led us to planning a series of celebrations this year, which will incorporate anybody and everybody who has been involved with the school over the last 50 years.”

Plans for the 50th anniversary include gathering together old photographs, anecdotes and memorabilia documenting the history of Monkwearmouth, to be shared on the school’s website.

A special awards evening will also be held for current students in the autumn, and the school badge is to be “re–branded” – to incorporate the original crest which has adorned the main building for 50 years.

“So many people have happy memories of Monkwearmouth,” said retired PE and geography teacher Adam Walter, who joined the school two years after it turned comprehensive.

“I am helping to collect the old pictures and hope past pupils will lend a hand. Photos from our website will be available to download, with any funds raised used to benefit students and the community.

“My heart is in this school completely. It was my second home for 34 years – although my wife would probably say it was my first! It is a very, very special place – which is why we want to celebrate its history.”

People willing to share their pictures, memories and memorabilia are asked to email the school at 50years@monkwearmouth.sunderland.sch.uk within the next few weeks.

The anecdotes and pictures will be shared through the school’s website, www.monkwearmouth.sunderland.sch.uk, and a selection will be featured in a commemorative brochure published in the autumn term.

“We would also like anyone connected with the school over the last 50 years – students, staff and parents – to contribute a sentence or so on what Monkwearmouth means to them,” said Mr Wilkinson.

“We have already collected together hundreds of interesting photographs and pieces of memorabilia, but this is just the start of a celebration of the history of the school.

“I am immensely proud, as the present custodian of the school, of its ethos and reputation in the community. It is my role to continue the legacy of the school through traditional values in a modern setting.

“We have been a part of growing and building the wisdom of the young people in our community in the past, in the present and will be in the future. Please join us in celebrating this event!”

l Look out for more old photographs of Monkwearmouth School in Saturday’s Wearside Echoes.