Independents face building freeze as recession bites

9th January 2009 at 00:00
Quality of learning must take precedence over new facilities, says head of Girls' Schools Association

The credit crunch will force independent schools to prioritise teaching over new sports halls or high-tech theatres, according to the new president of the Girls' Schools Association.

Jill Berry, head of Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford, becomes president at a time when all projections for the year ahead are focusing on the impact the weak economy will have on the country.

"There's a lot of discussion about the effect of the current financial climate on businesses," she said. "And private schools are businesses. And if Woolworths can go under, nobody is recession-proof."

Smaller schools may find themselves forced to merge or restructure. But Ms Berry believes the impact will be felt by larger schools too: "Sometimes independent schools have got sucked into an arms race about facilities. We have to have a better sports hall or new theatre because our competitors do.

"But what makes any school good is the quality of learning in the classroom. All schools will be focusing on keeping fee increases down as far as possible, by being leaner, meaner organisations. Perhaps if we're not investing in the physical side to the same degree, that's not a bad thing."

And she insists that parents will continue to send their children to fee-paying schools: "Children's education is an investment. If your children are happy, you don't pull them out of school when money gets tight. You sacrifice a lot of other things first."

The 50-year-old was state-educated herself and worked in state schools for the first 16 years of her career. Initially, she had no plans to become a head: "I'd look at their jobs and think: 'Who'd want to do that? They spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to work out who threw the toilet roll on the bus'."

But her switch to the independent sector coincided with a shift in ambition: she became deputy of fee-paying Nottingham High, before moving to Dame Alice Harpur in 2000.

"Some of the most inspirational teachers I've worked with have been in the state sector," she said. "Girls in the independent sector are receptive, they aim high. And parents are keen for them to succeed.

"Sometimes people have the idea that we're quaint. But girls' schools are pioneering. Girls are more prepared to have a go: there's no question here of whether they'll be the only girl doing A-level physics."

Following her presidency, Ms Berry will resign her headship, after 30 years in teaching. But she intends to remain in education.

"Education is my passion. My dad was a policeman, and I remember him saying it became a bit boring. I've been exhausted, I've pulled my hair out, but I've never been bored. That's a huge privilege."

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