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Why Giving Back Matters

Ms Brass, our Senior Deputy Head, said something very wise, as she often does, the other day. I was wondering why my own enthusiasm for something wasn’t shared by somebody else. She said, “Vicky, maybe it’s because your own enthusiasm is so great that they aren’t quite sure how to express theirs.” This was of course a useful reminder that enthusiasm finds its expression in many ways.

But, of course, I am excited! And I am excited about South Hampstead’s past, present and future. I am excited about the education we provide for our pupils and proud of all they grow up to be. But more than ever, I feel we have found a sense of purpose as a community to play a role in the wider educational landscape. And that’s why I want to spend this blog talking about giving back.

Giving back, just like enthusiasm, finds its expression in many ways. If we look to South Hampstead’s past, the Girls’ Day School Trust used to be the single biggest provider of free places in independent schools. Mrs Burgess, former Headmistress, reminded us all of this during our recent ‘In Conversation With’ assembly. I asked her what the biggest change had been during her time as Head and she said it was the abolition of the direct grant system in 1976, a scheme which had allowed thousands of young women to receive a GDST education for free.

Today, we and other GDST schools continue to provide transformational bursaries for students who could otherwise not attend our schools. At South Hampstead, up to 5% of our school budget each year is spent on providing bursaries and the vast majority involve funding 100% of the fees, as well as paying for uniform, travel and compulsory trips. I think of girls like Alisha, featured in our Philanthropy Review, who gained four stunning A*/A grades at A Level and is one of the nicest students one could ever hope to meet. I hope she will stay in touch with us, like other bursary holders, to share their stories in the future.

And so, to the future. When we appointed our irrepressibly energetic Director of Development, Sophie Whitworth, in April 2018, she had a clear brief – to build a supportive community around the school. Our first priority was to finish the previous 10 year masterplan and create the foundations for our future by making the vision for our new Waterlow Hall a reality. We are nearly there but we still need help. Part of the plan for the new Waterlow Hall is to use all funds generated from the hire of it to third parties to go straight back into the bursary fund – a significant source of revenue for us to give back to transform lives.

We are committed to improving social mobility and fostering a culture of kindness – aims that have renewed ambition in the current political climate. I am so proud of all that we already do with local state schools: offering Oxbridge interviews; teaching Latin and Maths; providing expertise to help set up Sixth Forms at trailblazing academies such as Michaela Community College and Oasis Academy South Bank, regularly including state schools in our speaker talks, and our fantastic Debating Hub. Our amazing Glaswegian Debate Coach, Michael, willingly gives up his time to provide open coaching sessions for our partner schools and we are enjoying competing with them in our regular fixtures.

Our ambitions for the future are big – and of course there is a strong feminist angle to them. Traditionally boys’ schools make waves in Development and Bursary fundraising stories – they often have larger endowments and their alumni have a stronger tradition of giving back. Their (male) heads are also skilled at championing what they do in the national press. We forget that it was the GDST that led the way for decades in the 20th century and still outperforms the rest of the independent sector in bursary provision: we account for 3% of pupils in independent schools, yet we provide 8% of the bursaries.

Our aim for the future at South Hampstead is to become one of the leading girls’ schools in the sector for bursaries. We are committed to at least doubling our current bursary provision and we hope that our community will support this ambition.

Our charitable endeavours deliver great impact both for our pupils and the wider community: our Spear partnership, our well-established Pensioners’ Link scheme, volunteering via the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme, and our renewed tradition of a whole school annual walk – last year we raised £16,000 on the walk alone.

Of course there are many ways to give back beyond raising money. On a personal level, I am committed to using my voice. I have spoken this half term as a panellist at both the GDST Summit and at the Question Time style panel at the HMC heads’ conference; myself and the Head of Francis Holland Regent’s Park, one of my great friends, won a debate at UCL last week on the motion ‘This House would send its child to private school’ against, inter alia, the author of a book called Posh Boys: how public schools ruin Britain. Charles Fillingham and I were secretly delighted as we expected to lose horribly.

The debate at the HMC Question Time event was of course dominated by the threat of abolition of independent schools. One of my own key points was that partnerships with our state school colleagues cannot be seen as a form of noblesse oblige. We learn so much from each other and this mutual learning needs celebrating. Why do we write grumpy emails about attendance? Because a visit to Eastbury Community School in Barking made us wake up to our attendance data – they outperformed us and 60% of their pupils are on Free School Meals. So far this year,  I’m pleased to report that the requests I’ve received for term-time absence are diminishing…

It would be wrong of me not to end this blog with the most enormous THANK YOU to all who support us: our pupils who are so keen to make a difference, our staff who always go the extra mile, and all the parents and alumnae who have given so generously in so many ways – through financial support, through your advice, through your contacts, through your time and through your spirit. Thank you! You are the best school community in the country, of that I am certain.

Blog post by Vicky Bingham, Headmistress from 2017 to 2023.  

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