Over the weekend, The Courier Mail's QWeekend magazine featured a four page story regarding the PMSA's involvement in events that occured at Somerville in 2017 - and a frank look at progress since this time. The article, written by Walkley Award winning journalist Leisa Scott, title Tough Lessons, features interviews with Morgan Parker (BBC Old Collegian and Chair, PMSA), Liz Washington (President, OGA), Dominique Layt (Somerville House Old Girl and Chair, Somerville House Foundation) and Chris Humphrey (BBC Old Collegian and President, Beyond PMSA). While this was an incredibly difficult time for the Somerville House family, we also saw the incredible strength and resilience of our community.
The OGA has been pleased to see important changes implemented in the subsequent three years, thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers across the stakeholder groups and PMSA.
As always, the OGA remains a passionate protector of our school's history - and its future.
If you missed reading the story you can view it online here. A Courier Mail subscription is required to access the link.
The OGA shares the full statement Liz provided to QWeekend, below, in response to questions from the journalist regarding specific topics surrounding the events of 2017 - and subsequent progress.
OGA statement to QWeekend:
I appreciate the opportunity to provide comment on the PMSA in the context of the 2017 crisis and the changes that have been made since. I commenced my role in November 2018, so my comments are based on the developments and environment I have experienced over the past 2 years, but I have also provided some context and background below.
The OGA represents the thousands of women who have spent an important chapter of their lives at Somerville over the past 121 years. Their school’s ‘brand’ is part of their personal and professional histories, and therefore carries some symbolism. The events of 2017 struck at the heart of that symbolism; not only because a strong, female leader was treated poorly and the Somerville community lost great teachers and families in the ensuing destabilisation, but it also revealed a governance structure that was not worthy of a school of Somerville’s previous and current standing. Hence the OGA’s deep investment in the events at that time.
Despite being custodians of the school’s history, the OGA are also very future focused. We continue to be closely involved with the school’s leadership, most recently the new School Councillor recruitment process. The Old Girls are the school’s ‘product’ and our members bring expertise across all sectors and from all parts of the world; Somerville wisely harnesses that connection to enrich the experience of current students and support the school’s leadership as well. I’m not sure this unique bond was as clearly utilised prior to the PMSA crisis of 2017.
Since the school’s inception, Old Girls have also been its most prolific donors – and the school stands where it is today due to the legendary protection of the OGA’s former President, Isabel Bauer, and OGA members. While the school’s governance is outside the OGA’s remit, I have found there to be a sense of respect and levity afforded to the OGA, commensurate with these contributions and its role as the representative body.
Some changes have been slower than others, but under the leadership of Principal Kim Kiepe and PMSA Chair Morgan Parker, we now operate in a collegial environment where we can pick up the phone or send an email discussing sensitive matters, and we know we will be heard or consulted. I have found them to be receptive to Old Girl input and requests. At the school level, the OGA welcomes new School Councillors and looks forward to the appointment of a new Chair in 2021. We have a good working relationship with Kim and look forward to collaborating with her to implement the school’s new strategic plan and masterplan in the years ahead.
History shows us that old religious institutions often resist change until they are in great discomfort. When that pain sets in, as it did for us all in 2017, it can be a catalyst for change that strengthens the organisation, or a source of resistance and ultimately stagnation. The PMSA was previously out of step with stakeholder groups and parents, but there has definitely been structural change over the past two years.
There are less PMSA board members per school council and greater community involvement; that within itself has been a massive change and moves towards PMSA’s involvement being more about support, than interference. We have also seen an evolution of the PMSA board itself, appointing people with the appropriate skill sets and professional experience in organisations of similar asset value, scale and community standing. We are seeing greater diversity on the School Council that aligns with the demands of contemporary governance, and improved stakeholder consultation. The OGA looks forward to seeing how these high quality appointments add value to Somerville House.
Our hope is that these structural changes have also brought a cultural renewal that will transcend the current leadership, carrying across to future generations of leaders and ensuring ongoing stability for the schools.
In terms of the letters patient issue, the OGA supports all endeavours to modernise the PMSA’s structure; Somerville deserves contemporary, best practice governance and if this means revisiting the letters patent to explore a better model, they should undertake to do this. There’s so much to gain from a Somerville education, but we can no longer measure ourselves against the ‘old school’ way of doing things. Past, present and future students are savvy consumers and its incumbent upon these historic institutions to use their resources and assets to continue to lead standards in governance, education and pastoral care.
In terms of school ownership, by way of background, in an event that bears eerily resemblance to the 2017 saga, our school was founded by Eliza Fewings in 1899 after she was unceremoniously removed from Brisbane Girls Grammar School for basically being a determined, perseverant woman too far ahead of her time for the traditionalist School Council. The PMSA came to own the school because the subsequent Co-Principals, Constance Harker and Marjorie Jarrett, were females, and could therefore not obtain bank finance to fund the expansion demands necessitated by Somerville’s rapid growth in the early 1900s ( please see article here: https://www.somervillehouseoga.com.au/news/217273 ).
Thanks to the dedication and perseverance of united stakeholder groups in the century since, we have stopped numerous attempts at overreach and commercial changes that strike at the heart of the school’s spirit.
In this context, I understand the question of whether Somerville might seek independence from the PMSA has been raised many times over the years. The OGA is hopeful that with good governance, ethical leadership, open communication and collaboration with stakeholders, such measures won’t be necessary in the future.
Somerville’s OGA is a force to be reckoned with and we will go to immense lengths to protect both the school’s history, and its future. If there is one silver lining to come out of the 2017 crisis, it is the demonstrated power of our community; the passionate defence and justice sought by the Old Girls, and the families who had invested so much, to give their daughters a world class education there.
If young families are considering sending their daughters to Somerville and wondering what to make of the 2017 crisis and the changes since, I’d recommend that they look at the way in which former students rallied to defend the school and refused to be silenced during this period. If producing strong, confident women is not a good reason to send your daughter to a school, I don’t know what is!
Click here to view our previous news feature on Flo Kearney's Farewell Event, including videos of speeches given.