Church High/Central heads talk to JesmondLocal

ItThe head teachers of Church High and Central agreed to meet today with JesmondLocal’s education reporter, Alice Madgwick and explain the reasons for, and details of the proposed school merger

Interview with Joy Gatenby, head of Church High:

JL: Why are you merging schools?

JG: We have two successful girls but two medium-sized schools. We both provide excellent care and teaching but we want to be able to provide really super facilities. I don’t believe either one of us could have provided that on our own. By coming together under GDST (Girls Day School Trust) there is going to be a huge investment on this site to create a super school for the girls.

JL: So GDST will bring in extra money?

JG: GDST are going to invest heavily. We’ll keep, obviously this wonderful building because it’s absolutely superb, but will shall be completely redeveloping the site so that we have excellent facilities.

JL: Why couldn’t you do it by yourself?

JG: We wouldn’t have the funds necessary. We are in a recession and that is not going to go away very quickly. The school could go on for many, many, many years. We own our own land, we’re not in debt, not in financial difficulty – but we wouldn’t be able to invest. We want to create really good performing arts, music, art and extend our boarding facility. More than that, the face of education is changing in the age of digital technology. There is going to be major investment in technology to deliver education in the future. That needs a terrific investment. If we want to be at forefront of education we know we need our girls to benefit from the best resources , our teachers to have the best resources and our girls to have the best facilities. We really do have to come together.

JL: Will you need to change in order to fit the GDST model?

JG: We’re really excited about becoming a GDST school. It’s a superb organisation to be involved with, not only in terms of the investment but also in terms of the opportunities it offers girls in terms of networking and staff for professional development. This is a professional body we’re delighted to join. The GDST is non denominational and each independent school under the GDST has its own character and flavour, so we are very confident that we can create a school that will be our school.

JL: What changes will you have to make to your ethos?

JG: Well there has been a great deal to talk about this and Hilary French (Central head teacher) and I have started that. We’ve found that our two schools have far more in common than differences and the ethos is very similar. We’re both out to provide the best in professional care and education for our girls. But each school has its own strengths and “specialness”. Our aim is to take best of both schools. The starting point is looking at the curriculum. We will look to provide a very broad and stimulating curriculum. The curriculum will then determine the staffing structure and there will be lots of consultation with the staff on all of this.

JL: What will be the impact for staff?

JG: On the initial calculations, I think we will need virtually all our staff so we’re certainly not looking at a situation where there’s going to be vast numbers of redundancies. We can’t say there won’t be any. If there’s sufficient staff in both schools for the roles of  in the new school then their jobs will be confirmed. If there are two people carrying out the same role and we only need one role in the new school then in that case there will have to be a selection process.

JL: There is a rumour that staff will have to reapply for their jobs.

JG: That is a complete misunderstanding. We become members of GDST at the end of March and from that point on, all staff, at Central and Church High, will employees of the GDST. So there is will be completely level playing field in terms of who does what job. Where selection is necessary, then Hilary French, myself and an independent education consultant will carry out an interview. But that will apply to all staff.

This is a merger not a takeover.

JL: Will you have to change your fees?

JG: The fees are slightly different at the moment (between the two schools). We only ever look a year ahead. For the coming year fees will be decided by Church High governors liaising with GDST. They certainly will not increase any more than we did last year but in all honestly we haven’t looked yet at the accounts for next year and looked at the level of fees.

JL: How many people have you had applying for your school over the few years?

JG: Oh crikey. I really would find that really hard to pull from the top of my head. I can talk generally: going into the senior school we usually look to have a year of about 45-40 girls, of which approximately 26-30 come through junior school and we take on about an additional 10 external candidates. We take approximately 10-15 girls into reception classes and we would expect numbers to gradually build up to make 30-35 in the classes at the top of the junior school.

JL: Have you had to turn many applications away in recent years?

JG: We have never turned many applications away. What you are looking for as a head of a school is girls who would benefit form the education you provide; girls who will come with a great attitude to learning, who have supportive parents, who are interested in their education. It has never been a matter of selecting little Einsteins for the school; we want girls who are going to contribute. Obviously they need to be able to cope with academic environment with school but we welcome girls of a range of abilities, so it is not often you say sorry you will not cope in this environment. It does happen, but that is not something that will be significantly different in the new school.

Since we started the recession, I don’t think we have been in a position where we’ve actually had full year groups. On the other hand we adapt the size of the year groups depending on applications. If we have say 30 children coming from the junior school and 10 coming in, we have two forms; we have 18 children coming in we have three. All independent schools have to be adaptable in terms of the number of forms in each year group.

JL: Have you notice any change in applications since RGS (Royal Grammar School) went co-ed?

JG: Not a huge amount, actually, in terms of perhaps the most interesting area to look at – girls going into the sixth form. RGS went co-ed in the sixth form first. Year 11 is a time when girls begin to think, do I want a change? Since they went co-ed we have probably had an average of two girls a year leave to go to RGS sixth form. So it hasn’t had a huge impact.

JL: What reaction have you had from pupils and parents about the merger?

JG: A lot of emotion. Firstly shock. They weren’t expecting this and I do understand that. I think then for parents especially, you get anger because it’s a change and they don’t want to change, they’re happy with the status quo. You then get sadness that something they’re very fond of, got great affection for, great loyalty to, is going to come to an end. That’s not just felt by girls and parents, it’s felt too by staff, it’s felt by me.

We are sad that after 129 years Church High won’t exist in its current form. But then comes acceptance that change is inevitable and then you get the excitement looking forward. I am pleased to say that already we have many messages from girls and parents saying that, yes they are sad but that they are actually very excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.

I have to say that the sixth form have been amazing. There were tears, some of them have been here since they were three! But the upper six actually sent me a card, signed by them all, saying they completely that trust the leadership and the governors. If we believe it is right for the school, they believe it is and we have their support.

JL: What is it that has made people so angry or sad?

JG: I think there is anger that there’s no consultation. I think that is to be expected when someone is told something is going to happen they are cross and say, ‘’well why didn’t you ask me?’’ Well the truth is when you’ve got a merger whether it’s in school or business, you really can’t make that announcement until you are sure that the terms of that announcement are something you can recommend and want to go forward with. For one thing there would never be a consensus. It has to be a decision taken by the governors who represent the parent body of the school.

JL: Our JesmondLocal Facebook poll shoes a 7:1 ratio against the merger

JG:  I think as initial reaction to a major change that is perfectly natural. If I was them I’d be saying, ‘’oh no I don’t want to change!’’ But what we will see over then next few days, maybe weeks, as parents have the chance to come to meetings and ask questions, and hear responses, that they’ll start to understand why we’re doing this. We’re doing this to ensure that Newcastle High School for Girls is going to be a school that is fit for the future, that will give the girls the very best opportunities. It’s up to leader and governors to look to the future and make sure we can provide the best.

We’ll post here the interview with Central head teacher Hilary French as soon as it’s been transcribed.


Interview with Hilary French, head teacher of Central Newcastle High School:

JL: Why did you decide to merge?

HF: Really because we want to make sure single-sex education for girls is established in the North East for generations to come. The two schools have been looking strategically at what the future holds and how best to plan for the future, and really quite fortuitously got talking together and really made the decision that we have so much more in common than separates us, that it made much more sense for us to work together.

We have, in terms of our site, outgrown it. There’s no more land – you know what Jesmond is like, you don’t have anywhere else to develop – but we definitely need sports pitches and so on. If we work together and eventually use Tankerville Terrace site, the trust (Girls Day School Trust of which Central High is a part) can invest and develop a brand new school then we can achieve our aim.

JL: You’re outgrowing this site because you’re getting higher numbers girls attending?

HF: Numbers, and just the kinds of facilities that you would expect in a school, which obviously weren’t expected when the school was built in 1895.

JL: So are there more pupils at the school than there were five years go?

HF: Probably about the same: the numbers have stayed fairly steady.

JL: You are already part of GDST; will there be clashes of ideology or ethos as Church High join you?

HF: I don’t think so. There is a huge amount that unites us in terms of commitment to the girls, of helping girls as individuals to achieve their full potential. The GDST is a charity which is focused on the education of girls, so again our ethos and ideas are very similar.

It should work really well indeed and it bolsters the education of girls in the north east and in Newcastle and bolsters the GDST.

JL: Will the number of pupils stay the same?

HF: Every girl in each school has a guaranteed place and as we go forward we’ll get optimal numbers for each year group, and then maintain that.

JL: Where will girls apply for entrance in September?

HF: Well (laughs), that it is an interesting question that we’re going to have to address. Obviously we weren’t able to tell prospective parents, for the current round, what was happening until after both schools had set their entrance exams. We haven’t sent out the offer letters yet, so basically they can go to either school and they will know that it will become one school in September 2014.

JL: So girls that have just applied and been accepted here at Central could theoretically go to Church High?

HF: They could, because once Church High becomes part of the GDST we are in essence operating under one charity and we know we are going to be one school. So they could choose. I suspect they will stick with the schools they have applied for.

JL: When will Church High become part of the GDST?

HF:  At the end of March 2013.

JL: How did prospective parents react to the news of the merger?

HF: Everyone is surprised. But our admissions office has been speaking to a lot of people and the overwhelming feeling is one of excitement because they can see the opportunities for their daughters are going to be massively increased.

JL: How will numbers of staff be affected? Will there be redundancies?

HF: Well we need to look at a curriculum plan, a staffing plan and then consult with the unions and staff. All the jobs in the new school will be available to staff who are in these schools and I very much hope that there wouldn’t be any compulsory redundancies. But there will obviously be change and we need to work that through. So in a merger situation, everyone applies for the jobs that become available. There should be a good match. The staff are aware, but we will do everything we can to avoid that.

JL: How did the staff react to this news?

HF: Well obviously, to know that your job, even if it is minimal chance, might be at risk… it is not good, but overwhelmingly their response has been positive and I’ve been impressed by their professionalism. They can see the opportunities. One of them even said to me. “Even if I haven’t got a job at the new school, it is the right thing to do’’.

JL: So you think there will probably not be a job for every current member of staff?

HF: I wouldn’t even say that because I really don’t know yet. I expect when you take into account natural wastage, people who may be going to retire anyway, because we are doing it well over a year period. So the decisions will be made by the summer and redundancies, if there were any, wouldn’t take effect for another year.  So people have a huge amount of time to find a job and so on. But equally within that time there are people who would like to take the opportunity to do something different or retire.

JL: You’ll be running a bigger school – what will be the impact of that?

HF: It’s the sort of size I’ve run already. The important thing about a school, whatever size it is that you value the staff and get to know them and through them get to know the girls. That you get out there and talk to people. If you care about the individual, the size doesn’t matter that much because you get to know them. And we will make sure there is a system in place so that each girl feels that they know someone really well.

JL: Even though they are going to be in a much bigger school?

HF: It could be that some year groups may become larger.

It depends on the numbers in each school and obviously there are different numbers in each year group in each school. For the girls at Central, the joy of having all the facilities close together will be tremendous, so it may well make the school feel smaller, in a sense.

JL: Will the fees have to change?

HF: They won’t change. We will have to bring them in line with each other because there is a difference at the moment. We will have to ask, what is the necessary increase we need to make? But we are mindful that people make huge sacrifices to send their girls to a school like this and we want to provide good value.

JL: So, to be clear – will some parents have to pay more because of the merger?

HF: No, nobody will have to pay more. Absolutely not, and we’ll gradually realign the fees.

(Currently Church high has higher fees than Central)

JL: How many girls have applied to your school in each of the last few years?

HF: I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head. Central receives around 160-170 applications each year.

JL: How many do you accept?

HF: It varies. It depends if we have a space in year groups other than form year 7. We recruit quite well into year 12. Probably 2/3rds we’ll take in.

JL: Have you noticed any change in applications since RGS went co-ed?

HF: No not really. We just decided from the start to stick to our principles of single sex education. A lot of people can see that girls do better in single sex education, so we still have a good rate of applications.

JL: How have pupils and parents of existing pupils reacted to the merger?

HF: Well obviously they’ve been surprised. But let me quote to you a letter I’ve just received, from a parent:

‘’We’re absolutely delighted with the news that Central High is to merge with Church High. Both of our girls have come home today excited about the new facilities and we’re pleased that both schools have secured their futures.’’

JL: But there’s been tears from some of the girls.

HF: Girls are very emotional aren’t they? It touched me and I was really proud that they care so much about their school as it is and that means we’ve been really successful, in creating a sense of community and so on. And that will continue. If I can be as successful, over the next seven years as I have been over the last here, we’ll have the most astounding school in a few years time.

JL: There have been criticisms that parents and staff should have been consulted before hand.

HF: The bottom line is that we are both businesses. And you cannot consult people over business decisions; it is not a democracy in that sense. However, now the decision has been made and the legal papers have been signed, then we can talk to people and consult. I understand completely the anger, the frustration the upset, because nobody likes change and people feel they are losing something. But actually as people have started to think about it and I’ve been able to talk to them and the girls, things fall into perspective and they start to see what they might gain as well as what the think they’re loosing.

And actually you don’t lose those experiences even if the name of the school changes. For the old girls it’s a blow but again the flipside is, it’s great they care so much and love their school.

JL: Was there no way you could have communicated with the school before the decision was made? With the PTA, for example?

HF: No. The trouble is, especially  in the world of online media and so on, if you tell somebody outside of a very close circle it will get out, for example, on Twitter where space is limited, and in a garbled form you’ll find people focusing on just one thing. If you do anything like this that matters. And because we care about the people who are involved that’s why we did it this way. We had to. Trying to take people into consideration.

The trouble is when we did tell people on Monday, the shock, I think meant that people didn’t read everything properly and they need to go back and read it. I know some people have complained about getting an email. They did also get letters in the post, but not everyone will get them at 7 o clock in the morning. Emails now are the best way of getting information to everyone at the same time.

We were in a very difficult situation and we tried to tell people as much as possible as soon as we could. Now we’re here, we’re talking, we’re open, we’re listening, we’re consulting.

JL: But now there is no opportunity for it to change, because it’s already been decided.

HF: No, because the people with the responsibility of the continuation and running of the school have made the decision, they have consulted, they have taken on their responsibility to make a difficult decision for the benefit of the school and education.

JL: When was the final decision about the merger made?

HF: The legal documents were signed on the last working day before Christmas and we’ve been working out how to tell people, what to tell people, how to phrase it, so that they get the true meaning.

JL: And how long had you been discussing the merger before that?

HF: Not long. Only two or three months: it actually all happened very quickly.

JL: Who initiated the merger?

HF: Well, people talk to each other all the time. So the GDST had been talking to Church High, as they’d been thinking about the future of girls education. We all have a responsibility to look strategically at how best to focus our efforts. GDST will put several million pound into this and they want to know how best to invest their money.

So it was just a fortuitous meeting of minds.

JL: Do you think legal action from parents is justified?

HF: No I don’t think so, we’ve fulfilled our moral obligation to the foundation, the trustees of the GDST have fulfilled their obligation to be mindful of the future of the school, the governors of Church High have done the same. Everyone has acted legally, properly, following legal advice. I understand why people feel that they would like to do it, because they want to hold on what the two schools represent but what we’re going to do is build on what the schools represent to create a third school. There is no legal justification for challenging what we’ve done and want to do.

JL: Is there anything you can lose by going into the merger?

HF: No I think we can only gain. The girls, the staff, the north east, Newcastle… everyone will gain. It will take a while to work it out and for everyone to understand and feel happy because everybody needs a period of time to adjust.

JL:  But will you have to make any sacrifices for this to go forward?

Each school has accepted the fact that we are buying into a new school we will have a new uniform a new brand, a new name. That is what’s upsetting current pupils and old girls. They know purple green whatever.

JL: What about the rivalry between the two schools?

HF:  (Laughs) There is natural rivalry, of course. But we’ve got a year and a half to work through that. And our forum (school council) is meeting tonight and they’re already coming forward with ideas about how we can start to work together and break barriers, with them being great sporting rivals etc. It’s inevitable but that’s good in a sense because we can channel that into enthusiasm. Girls are enthusiastic and they want to get behind things.

JL: We’ve had some readers raise worries about the potential for bullying a bigger school.

HF: We we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen. There is of course potential, but we’re experts in educating girls, we know how girls behave. It won’t happen.





Parents meetings about the the merger fare taking place this evening in both Church High and Central.