Has she told you about Edward Alleyn yet?” – it’s the usual question my sons use to mock me when we have guests for dinner. They have become very used to my waxing lyrical about the Elizabethan actor whose vision and generosity four hundred years ago made possible that element of my school’s life which I hold most dear.
When I got the phone call suggesting that I apply for the Headship of James Allen’s Girls’ School, I was not aware of its incredible history of offering bursaries to those genuinely in need. A small amount of research later and I was keen to apply and delighted to be appointed. Here at JAGS, we enjoy some kind of ‘Goldilocks’ conditions which mean that we can – and do – make a difference in transforming lives. I am incredibly proud of that.
Firstly, so few girls’ schools are old enough to benefit from the kind of foundation we enjoy from the Dulwich Estate. Our debt is not just to Alleyn but to James Allen, the Master Of Dulwich College who created us out of that heritage and to the trustees of the estate who have kept it going. I am also indebted to previous headmistresses, not least my immediate predecessor Marion Gibbs, for maintaining a simple link between that money and our means-assessed bursary scheme. What we receive from the estate we pass directly on to educating those who could not otherwise afford to attend. Secondly, situated in the heart of South East London, we are bordered by neighbourhoods where there is real need. At my previous school, I struggled to find families who genuinely needed full support. Here, this is not the case. The vast majority of recipients qualify for at least 80% of the cost of fees. Many have more than 100% as we also pay for uniform, travel and trips. They include parents on the living wage, zero hours contracts and unable to work through disability.
So far so good, but we want to do more. Whilst 16% of families in the senior school benefit from our awards, this has gone up to 20% in the new Year 7 – the equivalent of a whole class. We channel money from our sports club into bursaries and will be launching fundraising campaigns to find more.
When I speak with other Heads they are supportive but raise questions about this percentage of large awards. Do bursary students settle? Can you tell who they are? In short, generally yes – and generally no. There are issues to take on here and It takes time as well as money. I have a phenomenal pastoral team who understand the range of needs they present. I also have a forward-thinking parent body who appreciate that the diversity of JAGS helps prepare their daughters for adulthood. Many cite our bursary policy as a reason for choosing the school in the first place and our parents’ association use their energies to raise money for the scheme – £30,000 last year alone.
I do appreciate that JAGS has the good fortune of its heritage but it takes dedication and planning to maintain it. And I would encourage other schools worried about expanding their bursaries or looking for ways to do so to keep at it. There can be an immediate positive effect but our history also demonstrates that someone needs vision to lay foundations for the future.
Most importantly, Ned Alleyn’s generosity was around long before any noisy threats about tax and charitable status started to be thrown around. Even if we lose our charitable status, we will continue to honour and build on his legacy. Not because we have been told to do so but because it’s in our DNA and, quite simply, it’s the right thing to do.