Making a sea change in fundraising

Gareth Jones, Headmaster at St Andrew’s Prep in Eastbourne, took to the water for a unique charity challenge

I have said some daft things in my time but it will be hard to beat what I said on Thursday 22nd March 2018.

As Headteachers, we have probably all been there in budget meetings, trying to sort the ‘essential’ projects from the ‘desirables’. And often what is essential to a Head may not be seen in the same light by those controlling the coffers in the bursary. As a result, each year there are ‘desirables’ that slip off the budget agenda in favour of an ‘unsexy necessity’ – cracks in a wall that no one ever sees or a new boiler perhaps. 

Our old pavilion was a desirable in the bursar’s eyes but to me a necessity because of the impact I know it will have on the culture of the school. Recognising that it would fail to make the cut again last year, I started on a different path – fundraising

One has to be careful with fundraising for school projects – what message is being conveyed to the various stakeholders when asking for funds additional to the expensive school fees? So I was keen to keep it low-level initially and simply appeal to parents who could see the benefits an improved pavilion would bring: a new common room for our Years 7 and 8 pupils; a better space for match teas; a more appropriate space for our Brownies and Adventurers groups; generally a space much more user-friendly for a variety of functions. 

We raised money through former pupil donations and events organised by our parental association but by March this year, when we were about halfway towards our target, the funds seemed to be a little stagnant. And that’s when, talking to a parent about how to generate further interest, I declared, “I’ll swim in the sea every morning before school on every day of the summer term.” Utter madness! But I went on, “And on the final day I will swim from Eastbourne Pier to Holywell Bay.” 

This last point I now realise meant committing myself to a swim of around 1.5 miles which, in the scheme of great distances covered by extreme athletes, is not very far but, for me, who is not a prolific swimmer, the challenge was as much about finding the time and energy to be up and in the sea at 5.30am as the actual swim itself. 

The sea temperature was 8 degrees on the first day and throughout it all I only ever wore a ‘shorty’ wetsuit plus gloves and lightweight shoes. By the end it reached a positively warming 15 degrees which really is very pleasant.

There were days when I questioned what I was doing, mostly on mornings when the tide was out and essentially what resulted was a cold bath. I saw a different side of life too – a row of beach huts ablaze one morning, a police investigation on another. Mostly though, any negatives were outweighed by the positive impact it was having on my fitness as well as on the fundraising. Suddenly there was a surge and with a staff auction of promises the total raised crept solidly up towards our target. 

The final swim proved to be tougher than anticipated, partly due to the natural end-of-term fatigue but mainly because a strong undercurrent was working against me. What should have taken 75 minutes ended up becoming a battle of perseverance over 2½ hours. What kept me going was the knowledge of why I was swimming as well as the support on the seafront from pupils and parents who I did not want to let down. 

Getting out of one’s comfort zone is a common assembly theme of mine and on this occasion I was the embodiment of the message. Although vulnerable, I realised that this was not a bad thing for the children to witness, and to see me come through it, still with a smile on my face. We raised the necessary funds and the community was able to see just how committed I am to the school and its future development. 

St Andrew’s Prep:

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