Francis Abbott reflects upon 34 years on the Board of Governors and 15 as Chairman

In February 1985 Mr Francis Abbott joined the Governing Board of Emanuel School – the beginning of a relationship which continues today after an unbroken 34 years.

In 1985 Francis was a busy solicitor and turning down the role of Governor due to a heavy workload would have been perfectly acceptable. However, an Abbott saying “no” might have been slightly trickier than for others, as his family’s connection to Emanuel School dates back to 1921 when his father Frank Abbott (OE1921-33) joined the Emanuel ‘Prep’ as an 8-year-old. Frank’s father Francis A Abbott OBE, also a solicitor, was on the Board of Governors from 1932-1949, the first of three generations of Abbotts. After a very brief break in 1950, Frank Abbott ensured the family name returned to the Governing Board and remained until 1990, including a long period as Chairman from 1964-1985. Emanuel School, it seems, was in the Abbott DNA.

When Francis Abbott was appointed to the board in 1985, Emanuel relied heavily upon Assisted Places, in which the government paid the fees for bright children who came from less advantaged families, with over 30% of the pupil population involved on the scheme. In the Peter Thomson (headmaster) era of 1984-94, the school began to modernise with new Year 7 classrooms and the Sixth Form centre.

Francis (right) with previous headmaster Mark Hanley-Browne and the Archbishop at Lambeth Palace

Francis noted that the various building projects have been crucial to the recent success of the school as they make a clear statement of intentions to develop and move forward. Since Francis joined the Board of Governors, he has overseen the development of the sports centre, a new modern library, the development of the dining hall and the creation of the Fiennes Theatre, which were all crucial projects in the modernisation of the site. He also notes that although the workload has increased since he became Chairman, he has never thought of reading Emanuel paperwork and policy documents as a particularly arduous task. These days the board has a range of skilled individuals from varied fields, some of whom have invaluable expertise in business and finance. Francis estimates that he visits Emanuel 30 times a year, split between around 15 functions per year and four or five business meetings a term. One of the genuine perks of the job is having the best seats in the house for the drama and music productions!

The role of the Board of Governors has evolved considerably over the decades. Four sub-committees have created in Francis’s time; Finance and Buildings, Curriculum, Pastoral (including Health and Safety) and Strategy. These hard-working committees actively participate in agreeing policies for the school, supporting and developing the 5-10 year plans, observing lessons, anticipating trends and threats with financial implications for the school. As all of this goes on behind the scenes, it is more than anyone would ever realise.

Headteachers have incredibly difficult jobs and Francis admires the five he has worked with greatly, benchmarking different school ‘eras’ by the headteacher. All the headteachers Francis has worked with have moved Emanuel forward in differing ways, with each having their own particular challenges. Francis believes, now more than ever, that the headteacher has to be a businessman as well as a visionary with education matters, developing and enhancing the modern Emanuel ‘brand’ to make the school attractive to prospective families.

The school has changed beyond recognition since Francis’s introduction to the Board. He was involved in all of the discussions from 1990-1993 to admit girls – a decision which was supported by  parents and staff wholeheartedly. Towards the end of the Assisted Places Scheme the marketing strategies were geared at recruiting more girls and from the year 2000 onwards, the numbers gradually increased. Since then, teaching and support staff numbers have increased dramatically, old classrooms have been demolished, and the use of technology is increasingly evident in lessons. Francis has always enjoyed following sports news, club reviews and music updates and is constantly amazed by the range of activities going on in the school and their numerous successes covered in the newsletters.

Francis with the former Chairman, the late Lord Hampden

He believes the school is in a very strong position and although pupil numbers may rise to around 1,000, any further growth beyond that will require further building projects and the long-term development plan for the next 5-10 years reflects this. Another key challenge is widening the demographic field of the children who attend Emanuel through bursaries so they have the opportunity to attend the school irrespective of their financial background. The 430 campaign, with the aim to provide 43 free places by the school’s 430th anniversary in 2024, is the backbone of this ambition.

When Francis looks back on his 15 years as Chairman there are many highlights, including the various wonderful music and theatrical events he has had the pleasure of watching. On a practical side he is delighted with the extensive range of very successful building projects, including the Memorial Bridge, which began as a pipedream after the Clapham Rail Disaster of 1988. Francis takes great satisfaction in seeing the school’s reputation flourish in the local community and believes it sells itself wonderfully well, achieving excellent results and balancing superb extra-curricular activities with life in the classroom. The percentage of families who put Emanuel as their first choice continues to increase and the school is now fully co-educational throughout.

Francis comments that his family’s near century-long connection to Emanuel is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the Dacre relationship which dates back to 1594, often with a family member on the board. Sadly, none of his immediate family will be following in his footsteps; however, he does have a one-year-old granddaughter to whom he will soon begin slipping Emanuel-related policy documents in amongst her princess books to get her interested at a young age! Francis is delighted to be handing the Chairman role onto OE Mr Markus Jaigirder, continuing the tradition of having alumni on the board.

On behalf of the wider Emanuel School community we would like to thank Mr Francis Abbott for his incredible service over the last 34 years. His time as Chairman may have ended, but Francis will remain on the Board as a Governor.

Mr Tony Jones

Senior Librarian and Archivist

Francis at Dacre Day 2019