It sounds to have had much of the intensity and angst of any business merger for two parties with a heritage totalling beyond 250 years. This one involved two schools. And schools often command stronger loyalties than firms can. So you admire how Hilary French can appear as relaxed and smiling a lunchtime companion as she does.
She endorses a suggestion by William Gladstone, four times our Prime Minister, that no-one ever became great or good “except through many and great mistakes”. Merging Central Newcastle High School and Church High School to form Newcastle High School for Girls certainly met some parental opposition on both sides.
But French suggests: “Whenever change is announced there’s emotional reaction. Some people think change exciting from the start. Others have to be persuaded of its benefits. Yes, we had some emotional parents’ meetings. Some were not very happy at all.
“However, as we talked it through they began to see benefits. We had over five terms in which to plan things together for girls, staff and parents. We also had a good length of time to work out the curriculum and what we’d do with this opportunity.
Mindful of Gladstone, she adds: “Any merger brings interesting situations. It’s thinking of the people all the time, being mindful that different people act in different ways - being aware of sensitivities. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to get everything right.
But, with 16 years’ experience already as a head, she still appreciates lots of support received throughout – from the Girls Day School Trust (GDST), for example, the charity of which her previous charge, the Central High, was the only North East school among 24 school members, and whose funding support after Church High joined made the multi-million pound merger possible.
She’s repaying them invaluably – “writing down something I’ve called Postcards from the Edge. Monthly since the merger announcement, I’ve noted what’s gone well and what I might have done differently. The GDST, should they do it again, might learn from it, or find something to think about. You never stop learning, particularly about people and how to deal with them.
Why the merger? “It made sense. You had two very successful girls’ schools in competition within five minutes of each other - standing for the same thing, same aims, practically the same vision. It became obvious that for the sake of girls’ education, and for the sake of ensuring a really strong future for girls’ education in the North East, we’d be much better together, to quote a slogan not very far from here.” (She was speaking almost on the eve of the Scottish referendum).
“It was really a sort of mutual agreement. We’d both probably been thinking about it, and the time seemed right. Central was part of the GDST, Church High School not, but both were charities. Church High joined the GDST then merged with us.
“In essence we were two businesses with the same core aims, deciding our resources would be better spent together than in competition. The bottom line is, it’s a business merger. Any independent school has to make a surplus. Nobody’s going to subsidise us.”
Times indeed are changing for independent schools. Many who were connected with it still smart from the sharp way that the independent co-educational King’s School in Tynemouth (founded in 1860) abruptly took on “academy status” and from September 2013 joined with a state primary school in consort with North Tyneside Council.
Employers are increasingly baffled by changes in education generally: free schools, academies, STEM colleges, comprehensives, independents. They read mixed reports about varying standards year to year in A levels and GCSEs. How can they fairly gauge educational records in job applications?
French suggests: “At university level employment, look at the top tier of universities, the kind of courses there, the kind of degrees. I still think the traditional single subject, the old fashioned degree courses, will produce the strongest graduates.
“At A level, universities like Cambridge list facilitating subjects, the strong A level subjects they’ll accept. They look for people who’ve done those rather than softer subjects.
“GCSE is interesting. You need to look for people with higher grades, and as GCSEs change from letters to numbers it’s the same thing, I think. But I’d say, from an employer’s perspective, get your interview process right, because most employers nowadays are saying that academic qualifications are not the be-all and end-all.
“It’s skills too that we’re trying hard to develop - ability to work in a team, people skills, skill to present, to listen, to be punctual and to turn up. The whole process of change in academic qualifications is worrying everybody. Even some universities – admission officers and so on - don’t understand what’s happening in the schools. I think we all must be aware.
“There was talk this year of turbulence in GCSE grades - a slight push down for the first time in heaven knows how long. I think employers will have to be aware as we move forward that where they might have been looking for X numbers of As or A*s the grades may be going down slightly. That’s no reflection necessarily on the ability of candidates compared with previous years. We’re trying to counteract grade inflation, which there definitely has been.
French endorses wholeheartedly an item among priorities the North East Chamber of Commerce will put to the next government. It wants every school to have a governor with special responsibility for increasing business engagement in education, and to ensure every school leaver has had a high level of work experience.
“It’s what our strategic plan is all about. Our curriculum is being built around that structure and platform,” she points out. “Equally, as schools go out to business, business should be coming into schools, and teachers should have experience. We have a planning day with our governors, most of whom have links with, or are part of industry or the professions in the North East. They share those links with us.”
She’s keen to see three to five day placements introduced for teachers to experience business today (even if they’ve had such experience before). “A lot don’t know what the world of other work is like.”
Alumni and parents can also come into schools and give meaningful accounts of work experience. “We had a NEW (North East Women) leaders’ conference for our sixth form recently, inviting girls from other schools in the region. Successful women spoke about their careers and about skills sixth form girls must think about. We’re trying to do that for girls throughout the region, not just ours.
“About half of the population is untapped if we don’t get women into the workforce and tap their potential - especially in the North East. We desperately need to keep our talent in this region.”
She sees opportunity in big and small organisations alike now springing up. Her school is also encouraging girls to consider careers in industry, engineering and manufacturing. “We’re working with St Cuthbert’s High School for Boys, which has opened an engineering centre with sponsorship from the Reece Foundation, which is fantastic.
“The head there is keen to work with us in certain areas. She wants to develop drama, dance and leadership skills for her boys, and to help us use the centre there. We’ve three girls going off to do engineering this year. To have access to machinery and opportunities there, with Nissan working with them and so on, yes - absolutely.”
The school already meets the intention of the new national curriculum to have children five to seven getting compulsory lessons in computer programming and language. “We’re trying to get girls to where they can do a Spanish GCSE at the end of year nine, before other GCSEs.
“Understanding of language and ability it gives to communicate with other people is important in a shrinking world. Growing numbers of girls are studying modern languages. Yet in universities some modern language departments are closing, which is a shame.
“Computer programming is important, an intellectual challenge, and we don’t know where the world will be in 10 years’ time. Those skills are going to be core. Sir John Jones, an inspirational retired head teacher, has said we just don’t know yet what the jobs will be for most children in school now.
“My argument is education, educators and teachers are more important than ever, since we must give children values in such a shifting world. We need to get them open minded and give them skills to deal with whatever situation they’re put into. Technology is really changing things.”
Still, the school’s houses are named after ships the Tyne once built - Acadia, Carpathia, Mauretania and Turbinia. “Ships are always feminine,” the principal laughs, “and one girl has suggested it gets away from a soft girlie image and brings industry and engineering into the whole school set-up.”
Similarly the new badge, created by Newcastle design agency Drummond Central after a national tender win, features a seahorse like that on the City of Newcastle crest. “It makes clear our links with the city. It shows we reflect our heritage and want to be part of the city and the North East as it grows.
“It again picks up on the shipbuilding element. And of course the seahorse is associated with determination, patience and lifelong friendship, which is nice for the girls to think about.”
There are 220 teaching and support staff in the new school which has 1,100 pupils aged three to 18, of whom 300 are in the junior school. “A sizeable business,” she suggests. “Also a significant contributor to the North East economy - especially in terms of girls moving forward and the contribution they can make.” In the staffing restructure, based on the new curriculum and its staffing model required, there were no compulsory redundancies. Some people near the end of their careers did take voluntary redundancy.
The going is tough. A Lloyds Bank survey recently found families being squeezed out of private education because fees have risen 20% in five years. Average fee for a day school is £12,345 a year or 37% of typical earnings.
French says her school recognises demands on household finances, especially as the North East is coming out of recession slower than elsewhere. “However, we’re providing an excellent education, not trying to make a profit. Any surplus is invested in charity – going back to the GDST to be invested in our school or other member schools.
“We’ve have just had a multi-million pound project developing the junior school. We’re looking forward to building a new senior school paid for by the charity, the GDST. We’re affordable. We don’t impose rises for the sake of it. But we do need to invest in staff with the necessary abilities to provide the environment and help the girls achieve their ambitions.”
The school also offers means-tested bursaries - this year about 20 at ages 11 and 16 – which admit pupils who might not otherwise have been able to come. Demand being higher than availability, an entrance test is necessary and academic potential considered. Awards vary. But the GDST recommends at least 50% bursaries, since it wishes to allocate money where it will make a real difference.
Then there’s Serious Fun on Saturdays, a programme run 11 weeks at a time with the charity SHINE. Funding from industry gives disadvantaged children access to facilities of independent schools that might change their lives. Year 5 and 6 children from several primary schools in Newcastle share the experience of facilities and teachers at Newcastle High School for Girls.
Hilary says: “For the first time this year - and we’re so proud of this - one little girl who came to the SHINE project has joined our school on full bursary through an honorary scholarship that’s not means tested. She’s very, very bright.”
The new school, announced in January 2013, opened last month. Building of the junior school ended at nearby Sandyford Park in March and work there is almost complete. Building on the senior school at Tankerville Terrace should start in January for occupation in September 2016.
No to M&S, no to Lewis’s
Hilary French, 58, and a resident of Durham, comes from a teaching and academic background.
Married to Mel, a retired history lecturer of Durham University, she was born and raised at Low Fell, Gateshead, the daughter of two teachers, and wanted to follow their footsteps.
Educated at Sacred Heart Grammar School, Fenham, she read history at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She declined management training with Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, to train for teaching instead. She gained a post-graduate certificate of education at Durham University.
She taught at Greencroft Comprehensive in Stanley, County Durham, and at Thornhill Comprehensive in Sunderland, and was head of Central Newcastle High School before taking up her present appointment.
The family tradition looks set to continue. The Frenches’ only daughter Rebecca, 24, a Durham University graduate, now teaches at a primary academy of 1,000 children in Waltham Forest, London.
A place to sign it off
The Blackbird, Ponteland
Where better to discuss a new venture in education than in a new venture in gastro-pubbing? The recently reopened Blackbird at Ponteland is an exhilarating lunch experience. It’s on the site of Ponteland Castle destroyed in 1388, and its old stone walls have safeguarded an inn of one kind or another since the 16th Century.
The reasonably priced lunch and early bird menu offers four starters and five mains, with optional side dishes, a light lunch and takeaway and children’s menu. Hilary chose a main course only, a fishcake enterprisingly coated in spinach and Champagne fish cream. Her interviewer ordered potted shrimps with sour cream and toasted soda bread, and went on from that to a mighty ground beef burger, well done as requested, with cheese, bacon and fries.
The real ales and wines by the glass are profuse. Lee Douglass and Chris Armstrong, former regulars and now leaseholders, set a high standard. Their many assets include Glen David Robinson, former head chef at Café Vivo in Newcastle, who brings experience also from Australia, the USA and London (Claridges). Just the sort of lunchtime haunt in which to clinch a deal.