It’s been a busy 12 months at New England Girls’ School. We speak with outgoing Principal Ian Downs about the year that was.
The most visible development about the school is the building work going on. How are things progressing?
The flagship project, of course, is the Primary Industries precinct, comprising a huge indoor arena equivalent to 12 tennis courts and an 18 stable-complex, to be officially opened in February.
Secondly, there has been plenty of building work to consolidate the St John’s Coeducational Junior School on the one site, centred on the historic Horbury-Hunt designed building. Now, all our St John’s students will be in bright, refurbished classrooms filled with natural light.
We have also been awarded Block Grant Authority funding of $850,000 to refit our science labs, including a rooftop learning space. So there’s no standing still!
The school is about students as much as buildings – many have had considerable individual success, particularly in sport?
Indeed. Holly Harris became the 17 years girls NSW champion in the sport of mountain bike riding, and at the first leg of the national titles in Perth last month, more than held her own against girls two years older than herself.
Kayla Wicks has had a tremendous year on the Tennis Australia junior circuit and is well on track to a national ranking in the top 200. Equestrian students Anna Moxham and Meagan Nolan both qualified for the Equestrian Australia National Interschool championships in Victoria, while Lexie McCullach and her kayaking partner from TAS set a record in the 111 km Hawkesbury Canoe Classic.
Showing that our young women can hold their own against the men, Hannah Laurie was awarded an Australian Cricketers Association mentoring scholarship, following her selection in the Armidale Invitational XI that played an ACA Masters team that included noted cricketers Brad Hogg and Greg Matthews, amongst others.
But ultimately we are proud of all our students who strive to do their best and have a go – life is all about putting your hand up and taking part.
And not just in sport?
That is right. A group of our students were awarded second place in the Border Rivers Gwydir Catchment Management Authority Property Planning competition, while another group designed the winning chicken coop in a SLEX competition.
Students showcased their creative talents in the Armidale Eisteddfod, the TAS musical Grease, and the St John’s Junior School production of Seussical Jnr.
Ending the year was the magnificent news that 37 of our 41 HSC students achieved early acceptance into a university – many in the medical and science area, and also business. That is significantly higher than the past few years and is a great credit to the girls and their teachers.
There were some unique programs the girls took part in as well?
Yes. Three of our senior students visited Canberra as part of the Micah Challenge’s ‘Voices for Justice’ project, during which they lobbied politicians to help combat poverty at a global level. Our local Federal Member Tony Windsor accepted their invitation to be part of another initiative, the third Walk in Our Shoes Day, which raised awareness across the school community about the plight of the disadvantaged.
A number of students were delegates to conferences of Round Square, the global school organisation of which NEGS is a member. As educators of young women, we were also proud to host a day-long workshop for Year 9 students which empowered then to think and act positively, support others, and face the challenges placed by society and the media on peer-related issues such as body image.
The broader NEGS community also had the opportunity to come together. The second NEGS Beauty, Fashion, Hair, Health and Wellbeing Expo was a successful community and industry event. We were also delighted to welcome back to NEGS the first Mrs World Australia, Carin Hillman-Varma, who was the guest at the inaugural Foundation Rose Ball, that raised funds for our scholarship program.
You have just retired as Principal of NEGS. Looking back over your time at the school, what have been some of your proudest achievements?
I was fortunate to be a member of a team which undertook an extensive review of the school in 2009. From the 700 individual pieces of data we came up with 28 recommendations, 27 of which have been enacted. The school has also been able to commence repayment of our interest and debt to the tune of $700,000 in 2011. This is a significant achievement and consolidates the long term future of NEGS.
The confidence the Federal Government has in the school’s future is reflected in the continuing funding of our capital works program. The most recent grant for the refurbishment of the science building followed an intensive audit of the school’s finances, and this project will provide NEGS with state of the art laboratories.
Finally, the engagement of the alumni of this School through the drive of Mary Wright has been quite remarkable. This has been reflected in increased attendances at Old Girls’ meetings across Australia and at reunions during the Old Girls’ Weekend in September.
What is your outlook for NEGS in 2012?
There are many positives on the horizon – the appointment of an extremely well qualified and experienced Principal; the transformation of our financial base; the growth in enrolments; the positive community support; our restructured Parents and Friends’ Association; the interest being shown in NEGS from overseas; and, high staff morale, are all pointers to a magnificent outcome in 2012 and beyond.
And finally, what lies ahead for Ian Downs in his second attempt at retirement?
Having worked continuously in education and other roles for the past 49 years, it will be difficult not to remain active in the years ahead. I have been honoured by the NEGS Board of Directors to join the Board in 2012 and along with my Directorship of Homes North, the non-profit housing organisation in northern NSW, I have a ready-made professional focus in Armidale for the foreseeable future. I have been a thoroughbred racing steward for the past 25 years, and hopefully this role can continue, and it is also my intention to rejoin the local Lions Club – an organisation I abandoned in 2009.
On a personal plane, Shirley and I have a passion for gardening, and we need to revitalise the garden at home, wshile fishing and playing golf (I am a veritable hacker!) will occupy some of my spare time.
Thank you, and best wishes Ian.