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'Brilliant foundation for life’

20/01/2015 20:07:58 | WCBS

Back in 1984, MIS software specialist WCBS based in Glastonbury, Somerset began developing invoicing solutions specifically tailored to the needs of Independent Schools. To mark their 30th birthday this year, WCBS takes the opportunity to provide a brief snapshot of how the technology has evolved during this period and invites the company’s first customer, Wells Cathedral School to reflect on the changes they have seen over the last three decades – from carpets in the boarding houses to outreach programmes with Sierra Leone.

We were first introduced to Wells Cathedral School when they asked us to design a fee invoicing package. This was at a time in the early eighties when there was little computerisation in the finance department and manual ledgers were still de rigueur. Diana Davies, former Deputy Head and archivist at Wells recalls that the headmaster at the time Alan Quilter had recently returned from The Headmasters' Conference enthusiastic with ideas of how computers such as the Commodore Pet could be used in the classroom.

This was an era where the technology we take for granted today such as networked PCs was in its infancy and the Internet hadn’t been invented. Dumb terminals, chunky cathode ray tube monitors and dot matrix printers were seen as cutting edge and the accounting team remained focused on ‘operational’ and standard ledger-based matters.

Fast-forward to today and as Wells Director of Finance and Resources Peter Knell explains, as independent schools have been compelled to become more commercially minded, the Pass Finance accounting software is less about book-keeping and now much more about accessing and analysing Management Information. This crucial data helps the school to scrutinise factors such as student numbers, what it actually costs to deliver services and records the types of savings that can be made with the use of new technology, such as photo voltaic systems for the Sports Hall.

Whilst the essence of double entry bookkeeping is still a fundamental part of the bursary, there is now much greater emphasis on automating manual processes and extracting value from financial, administrative and HR data.

A complex entity

Of course there has been increasing pressure for schools to compete, but there has also been growth in pupil numbers which has prompted changes not only in financial management but also across the School itself. As an employer of over 350 staff, which would be the equivalent of running a blue chip company in industry, Wells is an incredibly complex entity that requires a significant team and resources to keep it running smoothly, comments Finance Manager Jane Whittaker. Automation has been part of the answer, with the introduction of technology such as e-invoicing, BAC payments, payslips and electronic budgets. In the past, budgets would be printed and placed in pigeon holes, now they are simply emailed to budget holders. Likewise the majority of communication with parents is conducted via electronic communications. Over 30 years later the finance engine is almost unrecognisable from the piece of standalone software that replaced the manual ledger.

In the last three decades the finance function has certainly witnessed many changes, but what about the school itself? Diana Davies relates some of key milestones and events, although she stresses that of course there are many aspects of the school that have and will always remain the same. “If you visited the school a century ago, you would still recognise all the old buildings here today”. Similarly, the ethos and values of the School have been retained and its ‘Esto quod es’ motto (‘Be what you are’) is still evident within everything they do from teaching through to sporting and musical achievements.

Musical Heritage

Famous for its musical heritage, Wells is recognised by the government as one of only four specialist music schools in England, and the only one which runs in parallel to a ‘regular’ coeducational day and boarding school. Naturally its musical roots are a big part of school life and even those that don’t play a musical instrument benefit from the musical environment and the extensive Creative Arts programme and opportunities from the Junior School right through to the Sixth Form. The diversity of the music has also expanded, now embracing new music technology as well as wind, brass, percussion and stringed instruments. Meanwhile the choir has gone from strength to strength and the Girls’ choir is 20 years old this year and now has the same parity as the boys, with the support from the likes of the Countess of Wessex who has played a huge part in their development with invitations to perform at St. James Palace.

International Relations

The rise of ‘girl power’ has also been realised in the staffroom too, where after 1100 years of male heads, Elizabeth Cairncross became the first female Head Teacher in 2000, replacing John Baxter. According to Diana, Elizabeth has been a fantastic role model and has been particularly instrumental in nurturing the School’s connections both at home and abroad. With close associations with schools and communities from all over the World, the school has forged strong links and under Elizabeth’s influence, Mandarin is now taught as a language. There is also the Wells Music Society of Hong Kong that offers scholarships to Wells, whilst in Sierra Leone, a Freetown primary school and music academy are supported by Wells. Whilst these global friendships are a testament to the world becoming a smaller place they also reflect the Christian values of the school and a genuine desire to help others. When the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, the school became part of the Children of Chernobyl Initiative and invited some of the children affected by radiation to visit the school.

An extended family

This altruism and sense of kinship is a trait that runs deep throughout the School and can also be seen on a local level with pupils playing an active role within the community. Not only is the continual fund-raising for local causes held in high esteem, but Wells pupils are also seen as an integral part of the City. So much so, that Wells residents have commented that the pupils are “greatly missed during the school holidays”. Nearby churches often benefit from pupils that offer to play the organ on Sundays or The Last Post at Remembrance services. The impression is very much one of an extended family, and with the school campus sprawled across large swathes of the City along with the impressive Abbey, it is regarded as a cornerstone of the neighbourhood.

Certainly the footprint of the school has continued to enlarge, as more older buildings are acquired and new facilities such as the swimming pool, astro-turf pitch, Sports & Dining Halls and new nursery department have been added. Funded by old boy John Cook, Wells’ reputation as a centre of excellence for mathematics was cemented further in the shape of a new high-tech Maths block recently opened, boasting state-of-the-art facilities with computers that rise from the desks. The next building project is the much anticipated Cedars Field Project, incorporating a new cricket pavilion, maintenance buildings and a brand new multi-million pound concert hall facility, which will give both the school and the general public a stunning venue for live performances.

Always evolving

Like many independent schools, Wells continues to embrace and adapt to change, from investing in the latest technology to underpin the smooth running of the school to expanding the wealth of facilities open to pupils with the much anticipated Cedars Hall. Head Teacher Elizabeth Cairncross says, “We can never stand still”, echoing the Wells philosophy that has dominated its history and tradition for the first eleven hundred years and will continue to shape its future, to provide “An inspiring education set in a musically alive and beautiful environment as a brilliant foundation for life”.

A big thank you to all the input from Wells Cathedral School and for access to archived material.

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