State grammar school takes lesson from independents - and tracks down alumni to fund improvements

Original target of £2m for new science block rose to £5m - and new projects are in sight

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's the sort of thing that would be second nature to a school in the United States - or, indeed, many of the UK's leading private schools.

Yet the 1,275-pupil Royal Latin grammar school in Buckingham has become one of the first state schools in the UK to embrace the culture of tapping up alumni to finance improvements to the school.

David Hudson saw it as a top priority when he became headteacher of the school three years ago - and indeed his first appointment was to take on Jo Ballantine, who had a background of raising money for the NSPCC charity, as the school's first development officer.

There were a few eyebrows raised by school governors but Mr Hudson was adamant. "The first thing that struck me was we've got fantastic students and good teachers - but the quality of the facilities, particularly in maths and science, left a lot to be desired," he said.

"We've been a science specialist school for years but the key issue was 30 per cent of the teaching was happening outside of the laboratories.  Teachers were trying to teach science in classrooms designed for history teaching and were going round the school with their tubes looking for their classrooms.

"I thought we weren't going to get anywhere if we just relied on waiting for government funding for the project so we went out to look for it."

The school started off with a blank sheet of paper as no-one had compiled a list of its former pupils - so Jo Ballantine had to track them down with volunteer help from the father of one of the pupils via the addresses the school had for them when they enrolled.

Now, just over two years since her appointment, the school has a flourishing list of 4,000 ex-pupils dating back to the 1930s who have been only too happy to help out.

"Originally we were going to raise £2 million for a new science block - but £2 million became £5 million as Jo contacted more old Latins and local companies."

The school is now planning to embark on raising money for two other projects - a sixth-form centre and arts block, by the time of its 600th centenary in 2023.

Jo Ballantine said she was trying to shed the image of fund-raising - but stressing the idea that the former alumni could become part of a community getting together for reunions at the school and giving to help finance the education of the next generation.

Since the campaign to raise money for the science centre was launched in September last year, the school has raised £4.5 million - included a £100,000 donation from one former alumni, Julian Thomas, who left the school in the 1980s and went on to study electronic engineering before setting up his own company, Racelogic - an automotive technology company. The Garfield Weston Foundation, a charity charged with giving grants to support organisations in need, also gave a donation of £180,000.

Despite Mr Hudson's initial pessimism about government funding, a flurry of letters to people like Education Secretary Michael Gove and Schools Minister David Laws when they stressed the importance of science education also eventually paid off in terms of a £2.9 million grant from a fund set up to provide capital funding for academies to improve facilities.  (The school converted to academy status two years ago.)

"Jo has more than paid her way," said Mr Hudson.  "A number of independent schools have tried this but in a more grand way - hiring consultants to do the work.

"We were at the start of a trend when we began on this road - although some of the other grammar schools are doing the same sort of thing but not on the same scale."

Jo Ballantine has joined the Institute of Development Professionals in Education - to find there are just 50 state schools out of 24,000 (or 3,250 if you only count secondary schools) in memberships.  Others are now beating a path to Mr Hudson's door to find out how they can follow in the Royal Latin's footsteps.

Since starting work on tracking down former alumni, the school has not uncovered any famous names who are former alumni.  They could, admits Jo Ballantine, be out there hiding their light under a bushel and - if they are - she would like to hear from them!