30 minutes with...Laura Firth, development director, Bolton School
A real sense of community and shared heritage makes fundraising for bursaries a rewarding job
“Much will be expected of those to whom much is given”
According to development director Laura Firth, this line from the Bolton School Girls’ Division prayer pretty much sums up the ethos of many of the alumni who are vital to her fundraising mission at the Bolton School Foundation.
“Our Old Boys and Old Girls continue to give back however they can, through careers activities, supporting pupils at all ages, coming back and talking to them and inspiring them…we are incredibly lucky with the commitment that we enjoy from our alumni,” she says.
This is an extremely advantageous starting point for a development director to enjoy, something that Firth has fully appreciated since she started at Bolton as a development manager in 2012.
“There is a real sense of community here – a great number of Old Boys and Old Girls maintain very close links with the school,” she recalls.
Successive generations of the same family often attend the 2,200 pupil school too, creating a “visceral warmth” around the place, she says.
“People care, they are really committed to the continuity of the school, to maintaining its legacy and its history.”
The historic stone buildings and 32 acres of grounds all contribute to this, says Firth.
"There's a real sense of community here, it creates a visceral warmth."
This commitment from alumni and others linked to the school is perhaps unsurprising given that Bolton School has always been at the forefront of supporting intelligent young people from families who would not normally be able to afford its fees.
A former Direct Grant school, and a big beneficiary of the assisted places scheme which followed, the school has been fundraising for bursaries since 1997 when the latter was abolished.
Currently, one in five students receives a bursary, but the school is aiming at one in three – the level of support offered during the heyday of the Direct Grant. The ultimate goal is to offer “needs blind” admissions.
The school’s geographical situation, in a relatively deprived part of the country, makes it all the more important to offer bursaries, says Firth, and diversity of intake is important to the school’s ethos too.
All this is backed by the leadership, she says, both in words and in actions:
“The heads, clerk and treasurer [bursar] and governing body all understand that there has to be investment in alumni engagement activities to ensure that that warmth is there,” she says.
This investment pays off in the form of donations from individuals and charitable trusts and through legacies, as well as smaller regular contributions from 200 donors, including Firth herself.
Development activity at Bolton is so strong as a result of all this that the school annually raises between £500,000 and £1m to fund bursaries. In 2019 it won the IDPE’s Fundraising Campaign of the Year Award after a four year campaign to raise £5m for its bursary fund.
“I could see myself in the bursary candidates and recipients."
But Firth, who was made development director in 2017, never expected to be in this rewarding line of work.
Educated at a comprehensive school in Preston and Manchester University where she studied English, as a youngster she was unaware of bursaries and their potential.
So when she started out in school development, she was pleasantly surprised.
“Independent education wasn’t a realm that I had previously accessed, I very much had that idea of ‘not for the likes of me’ almost, so it was a real revelation in a positive sense.
“I could see myself in the bursary candidates and recipients. Social mobility is a real passion of mine and it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to fundraise for that cause.
Firth initially left university knowing only that she wanted to do a job that would benefit others in some way – and she went to work for a housing association.
“Withington Girls' gave me the most fantastic grounding."
The chaos of the 2008 crash led her to switch jobs and she joined the development office at Withington Girls’ School, where she could see her skills in English and communication would be useful.
“Withington gave me the most fantastic grounding, like Bolton it is a former Direct Grant school, incredibly academically selective.
“The development office there was relatively small, it was just me and the director but we had a vibrant calendar of events and we were fundraising for the school’s bursary fund.”
“It doesn’t really feel like work when you’re doing something that you really care about.”
She stepped up to a development manager role at Bolton in 2012, being made director in 2017.
"It’s a lovely school to work at and its mission in terms of bursaries and open access dovetails with passions of mine,” she says, “it doesn’t really feel like work when you’re doing something that you really care about.”
But does she now have any concerns for the future as coronavirus sweeps through the land? And what are her hopes?
“Bolton is a community that has been challenged and where the economic impact of the pandemic is going to be felt particularly hard. I would suggest there are going to be bright pupils who’ve missed six months of school, whose families are possibly going to be facing even more economic challenges than ever before.
“So as far as we’re concerned there has never been a time when our bursary fund has been more needed.
“It can’t be that that generation of children has their talent and their potential squandered because of Covid.”
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