St Peter’s up to the ‘test’

John Macaskill-Smith

This was to be a week of relaxation and celebration for St Peter’s School in Cambridge a welcome break after a term of turmoil which started with allegations of bullying, the resignation of principal Dale Burden and ended with the election of new chair John Macaskill-Smith.

In a wide-ranging interview with The News last Friday, Macaskill-Smith, who has only been on the board for little over a year, talked of the future and his desire for the school to become more connected locally.

Then he headed off for a break and the school prepared for the inaugural Preparatory School rugby tournament.

But the next day, on Saturday July 3, those lessons Macaskill-Smith says the school learned about dealing with crises came to the fore when a global cyber-attack paralysed its network security and resulted in the school’s communications’ channels taken offline.

In a txt to The News, Macaskill-Smith said the school was being “tested” again and it was up to the challenge.

St Peter’s has a roll of 1260; 670 of them who live in either Cambridge or Hamilton and 500 who are boarders.

For most of its 85 years, Cambridge people have called the school ‘St Peter’s on the Highway’, to differentiate it from St Peter’s Catholic Primary School in the town.

In 1936, Arthur Broadhurst and James Beaufort named the school they founded St Peter’s and gave it the motto “Structa Saxo” – Latin for “Built on a Rock”.

The highway no longer goes past St Peter’s and the town, which was roughly 4kms from the school, is now rapidly advancing towards it.

Macaskill-Smith says that sense of being an elitist institution disconnected from the community on its doorstep must go.

Most of the staff live locally, the school facilities are extensively used by the Cambridge community and a lot of the school’s money is spent on local contractors.

Centres of excellence for golf, swimming, hockey, equestrian and cycling along with hectares of fields constantly hosting top-class sports and a theatre which stages dance and music competitions have added to the school’s reputation nationally.

The school’s Owl Farm, a demonstrator dairy farm with a milking herd of 600 cows, surrounds the campus and is a strategic partnership between Lincoln University, Fonterra and several key companies.

Macaskill-Smith remembers the Open Day he and wife Kerry came on to check out the school for the oldest of their three children. Their son is now in his second year at university while the other two are in Years 8 and 10.

“We wanted a co-ed environment, one building great New Zealanders.”

It was three students who took them on the tour that convinced the couple St Peter’s was the right school for their children.

They “hooked” them on the opportunities and the pitfalls and Macaskill-Smith was incredibly struck by the students’ confidence. He later found out students volunteer to take the tours and are not given any preparation other than to be honest.

“It’s an amazing campus when you drive in, you can’t help but experience that,” he says.

And then there is the staff who he says care and are committed to the students under their care.

It was the staff Macaskill-Smith spoke to first on his appointment as chair. He knows what they have gone through in the last few months.

“They are kind of relieved we are focusing on what’s next, how do we build on what we have and how do we focus on that extra opportunity. There’s been a bit of confusion and anxiety, but that’s behind us.”

Asked whether he and the board are worried the school’s brand has taken a hit given the bad publicity, Macaskill-Smith concedes what the school has gone through is troubling.

“People understand organic organisations that are based around people will have their times when things can get a little bit gritty.

“We continue to get very, very strong support from parents and families. The kids continue to achieve incredibly well both academically and across the school.

“Overall people understand that what we’ve gone through recently, while troubling, is the kind of thing all organisations experience at different times and it’s really about what we do now to move forward that people will be looking at rather than what happened.”

Communications during it were made difficult because it was an employment issue and because the school’s own communications network needed fixing.

That became obvious when during a bomb scare, the school did not have the ability to txt information out to families.

Lessons have been learned and changes made, he says.

“The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock,” Jesus said in the Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders in the Gospel of Matthew.

Macaskill-Smith is an experienced manager in the health industry. He led Pinnacle, a Waikato-based primary health organisation, and then Ventures, Pinnacle’s social enterprise which creates partnerships between communities, patients and providers.

He left last year to work with start-ups, non-Government organisations, private and public sector organisations in advisory and governance roles.

One of those is Tend where he is the head of strategy for the Auckland-based virtual healthcare provider. Former Telecom boss Theresa Gattung and her fellow My Food Bag founders Cecilia and James Robinson are on the board.

It is in that digital space that Macaskill-Smith says St Peter’s is ready to create more partnerships.

“One of the exciting things about the St Peter’s environment, while its independence can sometimes make things challenging, it also means we can look at doing things differently. Like ask ourselves what does education look like in the future.”

He knows as an employer that sometimes you take people on and they are not fit for purpose. That is where a school like St Peter’s can go into partnerships to provide the cutting-edge children can experience earlier.

“Today our teachers are teaching kids who can outrun them. They have access to information in the way we didn’t.”

Other capital projects are still planned, like an upgraded Performing Arts Centre.

The priority for the board over the next few months is to review what St Peter’s stands for in all areas of education, with a view to the future educational need and to determine what organisational structure is the best fit to support the achievement of that vision, says Macaskill-Smith.

In 1936, Arthur Broadhurst and James Beaufort named the school they founded St Peter’s and gave it the motto “Structa Saxo” – Latin for “Built on a Rock”.

“The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock,” Jesus said in the Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders in the Gospel of Matthew.

When things settle down again, Macaskill-Smith and his board of trustees will continue to build and strengthen the school with that solid rock on their minds.



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