Stuart Westley: From our Chair of Governors
I write as the country slowly and cautiously relaxes the restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic. We, at St Mary’s Cambridge, along with most of the world, hope for better things, including that further waves of infection will be avoided and that the vaccines produced by our brilliant scientists will prove equal to whatever challenge confronts us and them.
Readers may have grown tired of lengthy, predictable accounts of hardships endured, opportunities forsaken and references to a year like no other, presumably not entirely unnoticed. Instead, I will try to focus on where the Governing Body perceives the School to be now and on how we are planning for the future. Before addressing those two matters though, please permit me to reflect on three aspects of the last twelve months.
The impact on our young people
Among the many who have had to endure sacrifice since the pandemic struck, young people, including those of school age, have been affected in ways which are pretty unique to them. Their learning has been compromised, sometimes in a profound way which, in substantial part, will not be rectified. It is easy to say everyone has been affected so it hardly matters. Young people have by no means been affected equally; some have been much better able to help themselves, and to be helped, than others. Moreover, those within an institution deeply committed to providing the best quality education for young people and who therefore understand the value of learning will, or should, be acutely conscious that denial of the opportunity to learn, even in part, matters. It does! Also, it is likely that the passage of time for we not so young might cause us to lose sight of the acute nature of youthful friendships, with all their highs and lows. We are essentially social beings, of course, happily, with much variation over how our sociability is manifest. Much of what we value and may wish to think of as a form of ‘wisdom’ comes from social interaction, including that which we experienced in those heady, uncertain days of youth, for many a unique and treasured memory. Our current generation of young people has been denied some of that vital, lively interaction, to be replaced by increased isolation and loneliness however parents and teachers have tried to help. Our awareness of the impact of lockdown on our pupils’ social lives and their personal development will not quickly be forgotten.
Among the many who have had to endure sacrifice since the pandemic struck, young people, including those of school age, have been affected in ways which are pretty unique to them.
The success of remote learning
Throughout the period many within our school community have been heartened and encouraged by the generous appreciation regularly expressed by parents over the quality of remote learning. That matters too, for the demands on staff increased relentlessly during that time, with unfamiliar skills and techniques needing to be acquired urgently, holidays foregone and for some, increased needs within their own families. Everyone responds to encouragement; it is never more important than when the pressure is really on.
So, thank you, generous and appreciative people. I hope we have earned your praise; I think we have and there is confidence now that those new skills, acquired at high speed in an emergency, will prove enduring and will lead to better, more varied and more interesting teaching, to the benefit of our pupils.
In my last substantial communication with the school’s friends and stakeholders I endeavoured to set out the Governing Body’s bold, ambitious strategy which would inform their oversight of the School. I hope it was clear that the Governors’ role within a school is strategic, not operational. The latter is the business of the Headmistress and Senior Leadership Team. They, the full-time professionals, run the School, we do not interfere. But we need to have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of how the school is run, ideally acquired from diverse sources, to be assured that the strategic aims are clearly understood and are being delivered.
Central to those aims is making the very best provision for the education of the girls committed to our care, however diverse their personalities, interests and needs may be. We repeated our commitment to remain a girls’ school in central Cambridge with the admission of boys to the Sixth Form, though not currently planned, not forever ruled out. We will remain faithful to the timeless values proclaimed by Mary Ward, the basis of a pastoral provision that nurtures and supports all our pupils. We also announced the ambition to establish a partner school abroad and we formed a major programme of development of our buildings, which would be the first on the Bateman Street site since the 1970s, to complement the exciting development of the sports facilities on Long Road, now almost completed.
The pandemic hit St Mary’s pretty hard, as it did many, if not quite all, independent schools. The operation of the Boarding House became the greatest area of uncertainty with overseas travel substantially withdrawn. There were many other challenges which the Headmistress has described in her very prompt, detailed communications. In the quest to conserve cash all building development was put on hold. Governing Body meetings were more marked by short term quick thinking, expediency perhaps, than by longer term, bigger picture discussion. With all the key players in our community, including teaching and support staff, parents and pupils having pulled together so splendidly through the challenging times, we are confident that we are through the worst and it is appropriate now to rethink and to focus on our long-term strategy.
Looking to the future
That process has been a prominent feature of discussion within the Governing Body since February, and it will continue throughout this term. The Governing Body has seen some changes in its composition since the previous strategy was determined and published, an additional reason why the strategy should be reviewed now. It would be unwise to anticipate every aspect of the outcome.
It is clear though that the two central aspects of the strategy will remain: to make the best possible provision for girls in terms of teaching, co-curricular activity and pastoral care and generation of sufficient annual surpluses from 2022 to permit building development on the scale envisaged pre-pandemic.
Should some of that sound just a little predictable and stereotypical, the sort of proclamation you might expect from most schools, then perhaps I might share this with you. I am quite keen, understating it, that whenever news of a success is passed on- and that happens regularly as our excellent staff and pupils produce very many successes, the sentence which follows that which proclaims the news addresses how we intend to build on that success and aim to do even better. That is what our ambitions actually call for; it is a philosophy which is neither stereotypical nor common. No need to labour the point about who would benefit.
The last issue of the Magnolian referred to the ambition to form a partnership with a school overseas to provide advice and support as that school sought to model itself on the tradition of the highly respected British independent schools. We were then at the early stages of discussion, actually with no great concern to progress quickly. We recognised that establishing trust, reliability and clarity over detail are key factors in determining long term success and that undue haste invites risk. Progress has slowed during the pandemic, but not stopped. As I write, we have a promising relationship developing; we are not far from the point at which we can enter a formal agreement and publish the details within our community.
For some years we have let our buildings at times when they are not used, principally during the summer holiday period. The income generated contributed significantly to the School’s finances. Unsurprisingly, the demand for that provision disappeared during the pandemic and with it the income for the year 2019 – 2020. Sadly, that situation continues; if there is any income from letting during the current year it will be small. But, looking ahead there is an ambition which embraces providing top quality residential courses making use of the wide range of exciting opportunities which Cambridge and its surrounds offer. Generation of ancilliary income is important and it is being addressed ambitiously, with discernible optimism and energy right now. We all need to be clear though that those ideas, though important, are tangential to our main purpose.
Continued prosperity is directly related to the provision for our pupils being of the highest quality. That is where virtually all our time and energy will be focused.
Our current governing body
Finally, in the last twelve months several Governors have left the Board with our good wishes and gratitude for their loyal, generous service. Andrew Grant, who was the highly successful Headmaster of St Alban’s School for 22 years and Chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), stood down in December after chairing the Education Committee for six years. Sarah Squire, with a distinguished record in education and the diplomatic service, reluctantly concluded that her situation would prevent her from continuing as a governor and left us in March after five years. Marina Pattinson had very ably chaired the Governance Committee in recent years. At the end of this term, we shall bid farewell to Victoria Espley, our Vice-Chair and Chair of the Finance Committee. Victoria is a current parent and Bursar of Hughes Hall; she has been appointed Bursar of the Warwick Independent Schools Foundation, a signal promotion on which we congratulate her, and she returns to her native area. Rachel Gleeson, a former pupil of the School, also left the Board at the end of 2020. She found that her senior position at Bedford Modern School together with the needs of her very young son prevented her from devoting the necessary time to the responsibilities which come with school governorship. We all hope that there will be an opportunity in future for Rachel to resume service to the School.
During last term Jo MacKenzie (pictured) was elected a governor. Jo is the recently retired Head of Bedford Girls’ School and brings with her deep understanding of education and leadership of girls’ schools. Sarah Dixon, also a retired head, will take over as Chair of the Education Committee immediately. We are particularly grateful to Robert Meakin who has agreed to take on the vital responsibility of Safeguarding Governor from Sarah with immediate effect. Robert joined the Board at the end of 2019; he is a solicitor with a specialism in charity law and a former employee of the Charity Commission.
Since lockdown, inevitably, all meetings have been conducted remotely. Whilst the technological developments have been of immense help, I sense much enthusiasm among governors that we will shortly be able to meet face to face and to resume first-hand experience of the school and of girls eagerly grasping their educational opportunities.
My very best wishes to you all.
Chair of Governors
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