From our Chair of Governors
The first half of 2022 has seen an immensely welcome return to continuous schooling since the series of emergency measures necessitated by the appearance of the pandemic in March 2020.
Whilst concern over health has by no means disappeared, schools have been spared regulatory dictat recently, normal teaching has been the pattern during the last six months and conventional examinations are now well underway.
Reflecting on the last two years, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the pandemic hit independent schools, together with much of the rest of the world, like a bombshell. We did not know what the longer-term effect would be though we did know that many people, including many of the St Mary’s School families, would be badly affected. Along with many schools, St Mary’s took prudent measures, including, most importantly, reaching out to families affected and providing whatever we could by way of support, financial and otherwise.
In the prevailing uncertainty, conservation of cash became the priority overnight. The ambitious development plans which had been emerging since 2018 immediately went on hold and teaching was fundamentally respecified, successfully we now know, thanks to the commitment and adaptability of all our staff, to whom great credit is due. Pupils clearly suffered, not least through having limited access to friends and teachers, though there was much evidence of admirable stoicism and resilience throughout those trying times.
As a school we can now take stock. Financially we know that the considerable, adverse effect was largely confined to one year, 2019-20, and that the year 2020-2021 produced a result in line with, if not rather stronger than, what was expected pre-pandemic.
The outlook for the future, present uncertainties notwithstanding, also looks favourable. The pandemic caused the total number of pupils nationally in those independent schools within the Independent Schools Council to fall from its 2019 record level by just 2%, a much lower number than many feared. In the year to January 2022, those numbers have fully recovered and are now, by a small margin, again at a record level. That national pattern, 2% down, then a full recovery, reflects the story at St Mary’s.
In overall terms, and there are of course variations, arguably the biggest threat for decades produced only a small and temporary decline in the fortunes of independent schools. That surely leads to the conclusion that Britain’s independent schools are remarkably resilient and that what they provide for their pupils is indeed very highly valued.
But new threats have emerged as the world’s economies recovered, including supply shortages, the war in Ukraine and rampant inflation. To dismiss those threats and the effect they may have on all of us entirely would be rather cavalier; we should though reflect that independent schools, provided they continue to make a first-class provision for their pupils, are resilient. There is a record of surviving crises and emerging stronger as a result; consider for instance how teaching skills have advanced through the need to embrace remote learning.
Awareness of the resilience of our schools was what prompted the St Mary’s Governors recently to judge that the time was right now to re-instate our ambitious plans to develop the School and to institute what would be the first significant programme of improvements to the main buildings in Bateman Street since the 1970s. It is those developments to which I now turn.
The first phase will include providing an additional four, full-size classrooms which current pupil numbers require, a new façade including landscaping on Bateman Street and new servery and dining facilities. The School is on a closely enclosed site, as you know, which introduces considerable additional complications to any building development.
One consideration in our planning, arguably the most important, is to ensure that building work takes place at times which least disturb pupils’ learning. To that end, the Bursar and his colleagues within the support staff, assisted by a team of external special advisers, have gone to considerable lengths to enable major work to commence after the completion of public examinations this month and before pupils return in September. How successful those intentions will prove to be will depend on some factors outside our control. But, please be assured, the welfare of our pupils, and their learning particularly, is our top priority.
Ahead of the commencement of the work, a substantial number of enabling projects have already been completed including the introduction of a new garden room to accommodate displaced speech and drama classes; relocation of staff offices; purchase of temporary classrooms to accommodate displaced lessons; diversion of IT infrastructure and utilities and internal and external communications.
This first phase of an extended building development project is intended substantially to enhance the learning and development opportunities of many generations of St Mary’s girls in the future. It will also be a tangible expression of the ambitious vision of the Governing Body and the whole school community that we are a beacon of excellence regarding the education of girls in Cambridge and beyond.
These plans will follow the recent establishment of a STEM Lab at the Junior School, now much used and appreciated by Junior School girls and largely funded by the generosity of a recent alumna to whom we remain enduringly grateful.
During the last year, we have seen the completion of the remarkable development of the Sports Grounds at Long Road in conjunction with Homerton College. That imaginative initiative has caused the substantial, valuable area not far south of the centre of the City to be transformed from an unusable bog to a modern, attractive multi-purpose sports facility.
Both Senior and Junior School girls have been able to use this new and vastly improved sports centre throughout this academic year. The programme of games and other physical activity has been much expanded, to include use, and competitive fixtures against other schools, on Saturdays. This increased opportunity has been greatly welcomed by all from the Governors down. We were aware that this was an area where the provision for our girls had been distinctly limited.
The transformed provision owes much to the vision, energy and leadership of Ms Louise Powell and the team which works so effectively with her. The Long Road initiative closely followed the expanded rowing provision, another initiative undertaken very successfully in partnership with Homerton College.
The building development planned for the next 12 months is part of a wider vision, which includes: the STEM provision on the Bateman Street site, greatly enhanced facilities for teaching art and music within a Creative Arts hub, and a new Sixth Form Centre. In September 2023, the 125th anniversary year of St Mary’s School will begin and following Mary Ward’s words 'Woman in time will come to do much' we have always aimed to provide girls from all backgrounds, origins and talents with the inspiration from that prophecy.
Fulfilling the wider vision will depend on the degree of support our Magnolia 125 Fundraising Campaign attracts. We are currently seeking support from all those within the School community in a position to help and who wish to engage with this exciting vision for the future education of St Mary’s girls. For a copy of our Appeal brochure which explains the Appeal; outlining the costs, how to become a benefactor and how to join the new Friends of Magnolia 125. To find out more about how you can help and invest in the future of our School, please contact either Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, or Emma Hanbury, Campaign Director.
ISI Report 2022
The School community drew great encouragement from the long-awaited (owing to the pandemic) inspection conducted by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) during the week 9 – 13 May 2022. The Inspection addressed both compliance with regulation and the quality of education provided for our pupils. The outcome was ideal: The School was judged compliant with the (now very extensive) range of regulations which impact independent schools; the two aspects of educational quality: pupils’ attainment, and pupils’ personal development, were both judged ‘Excellent’.
So, as we approach the end of a distinctive year which brought many challenges, there is a great deal from which we can draw satisfaction and much to look forward to at St Mary’s in the months and years ahead. That this is so, owes a great deal to many of the key people within our community to whom we are, and should be, unreservedly grateful. The Governing Body has expressed its gratitude in the past and it does so now, emphatically. We know that achievement in any walk of life arises only through a combination of expertise and commitment. The Staff at St Mary’s show that combination in abundance.
One, of many, to whom we are particularly grateful is our Bursar, Mark Johnstone. School Bursars, I suspect, rather live in the shadows and it may be that Mark prefers things that way. Some may take the view that the fewer communications they receive from the Bursar the better. Whatever, it will not be widely known that Mark has a remarkably detailed grasp of the School’s finances, the information he provided for the Governing Body has been unfailingly comprehensive, timely, succinct and accurate. The mantra ‘no surprises’ will be familiar to many. In Mark’s time as Bursar, there have been none. I should add that Mark has led a small but able and dedicated team that has attended to every aspect of the upkeep of our buildings and grounds in the style which reflects his leadership: no fuss, things completed within budget and on time. In retirement after this term, Mark will enjoy a less demanding life; he moves to it with our deep gratitude.
It is possible that the picture above may sound a touch over-confident, uncritical even! If so, I need to emphasise, again, that however well we consider we have done, St Mary’s will always operate on the basis that our duty to our pupils, and their parents, together with the very nature of our vocation, demands that we recognise that there is always room to do better; that remains the goal. So, how we intend to progress in future is at least as important as anything set out above. That commitment to continuous improvement must shine through our every endeavour and utterance.
In September we will welcome as Deputy Head (Academic) Dr Patrick Wallace. Dr Wallace will join our community with an impressive background; he was a Fellow and Tutor at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and has played a substantial part in the full life of several well-known independent schools more recently. He will take the lead over ensuring top-quality teaching and professional development of the teaching staff and he will be a key player in our continuing quest for improvement of which you have my unqualified assurance.
We thank the previous Deputy Head (Academic), Mr Stephen Seidler for his commitment to that role over many years. It is a pleasure to know that Mr Seidler will continue to teach at St Mary’s on a part-time basis.
My thanks, and those of the School’s Governors, to you all for your continued support throughout this year are heartfelt. I wish you all relaxation and contentment in abundance in the coming weeks before most of us meet again, sleeves rolled up, in September.
Stuart Westley, Chair of Governors
Back to Magnolian 2022