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To invest, or not to invest?

Helen Jeys, Headmistress at Alderley Edge School for Girls, looks at building new facilities in challenging times

Posted by Julian Owen | December 04, 2017 | Law, finance, HR

School budgets are always at the forefront of our minds when we think about school facilities and improvements. Indeed, reports on the shortfall in state school budgets have been in the news a lot this year. A report published in April 2017, for instance, commented that a third of state schools are using money meant for the poorest pupils to cover budget shortages. However, this is not a problem only experienced in the state system. The so-called ‘squeezed middle’ are requiring more support to afford fees in the independent system and we too, therefore, are experiencing problems with decisions regarding investments for instance. Do we make decisions to invest in facilities or do we play safe and hold those reserves back?  Indeed, many schools are now funding construction projects from donations and not from their reserves.

So, what building projects does one prioritise, if at all?  Since joining my school in September 2016, facilities have been uppermost in my mind. However, I was very keen to ensure that the facilities I encouraged governors to invest in were both necessary and were those that reflected the newly revised vision for the school. As many headteachers do across the country, I believe in a strongly holistic approach to education; educating the whole child is vital if they are to grow and flourish in a way that will enable them to cope with the increasing challenges of life. I wanted to ensure, therefore, that the facilities we invested in mirrored the importance of this aspect of the vision. If I was telling parents that I wanted girls to feel confident and valued in whatever context, could this be supported by my subsequent tour of the school!? I certainly think it does now.

So, in the first year – we prioritised two approaches to facility improvements; firstly, the aesthetics of the school which is relatively inexpensive to address and, secondly, those facilities which could enable our girls to access a wide variety of extra-curricular and enrichment opportunities. And, talking to girls and parents now about these facilities, the impact has been far greater than I could ever have anticipated. Girls have recognised the changes, they like them, they are proud of their environment and they really understand that these reflect the direction in which they can see the school going.

So, what have I prioritised during my first year? Keen to develop sporting interest in the school, we invested in a fitness suite, a new climbing wall, a refurbished gym, tennis and netball courts and we have just acquired planning permission for a new all-weather playing surface. All of these have been incredibly well received. In fact, our climbing wall has enabled us to invite international climbers into school to talk about the benefits of risk-taking; an aspect of education we have been focusing on pastorally. 

We also dramatically improved our drama and dance facilities and completely refurbished our food technology space. We have new departmental working space and a new staffroom. Not only has all of this improved our ability to offer enrichment clubs and workshops but it has also impacted staff wellbeing in a positive way.  

There are always drawbacks. My staff stalwarts were incredibly patient when they returned after the summer to avalanches of plaster dust! They recognised what we were trying to do, appreciated that the path of building work does not always run smoothly and helped ensure that the school was ready for the girls. A less resilient staff may not have been so accommodating!  

So, has it been worth investing money that could have been held back? Yes – without doubt. As the Chinese proverb says: “Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” 

To learn more about Alderley Edge School for Girls, please visit: aesg.co.uk

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