‘Never just as­sume ev­ery­thing is fine’

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Ellysse Grif­fiths takes her sum­mer projects se­ri­ously. This year, the 10-year-old from North Wales has dili­gently worked her way through 30 pages of dec­i­mals and times ta­bles and de­signed a new school mag­a­zine. Yet her home­work will go un­marked.

Chil­dren across the coun­try re­turned to school this week, but Ellysse couldn’t go back to How­ell’s, a girls’ school set in a 120-acre es­tate near Rhyl. Last month, the school’s trus­tees an­nounced that it would close, af­ter 154 years. Par­ents were left just a month to find a new school for their chil­dren.

Ellysse’s par­ents, Steve and Sa­man­tha, spent the next week bom­bard­ing schools with phone calls. The near­est state pri­mary was full and many other par­ents were com­pet­ing for the same places at the prep schools nearby. At last they found a sec­ondary school that would take Ellysse, but she will have to go to a state school for a year un­til she is old enough, mean­ing she will have at­tended three schools in as many years.

As an­other term be­gins, ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts are warn­ing fam­i­lies of the in­creas­ing risk that their pri­vate school could fold. Ac­cord­ing to the In­de­pen­dent Schools Coun­cil, a dozen schools have shut over the past year, on top of 25 in the pre­vi­ous two years. “This year has been the worst we can re­mem­ber for pri­vate school clo­sures,” says Janette Wal­lis, se­nior edi­tor of The Good Schools Guide.

“When par­ents con­tact our ad­vice ser­vice now, they are as likely to ask ques­tions about a school’s bal­ance sheet as they are about the qual­ity of its teach­ing. If par­ents have doubts about the sta­bil­ity of their child’s school, it is a good idea for them to have an es­cape route. They should check out al­ter­na­tives and know who to phone should the bad news ar­rive.”

The clo­sures are partly a de­layed re­sponse to the re­ces­sion, with par­ents find­ing it harder to pay school fees. Prep schools that had pre­vi­ously scraped by with a small num­ber of pupils lose money quickly if a few stu­dents drop out. “It is a shame be­cause th­ese smaller schools of­fer the in­ti­macy and nur­tur­ing that many par­ents value,” says Wal­lis.

Large schools and pri­vate school chains are not im­mune, how­ever, and are likely to strug­gle if they are too close to other fee-pay­ing schools.

When schools close, teach­ers of­ten di­rect par­ents to a nearby al­ter­na­tive, but Wal­lis says they should be wary. “In many cases neigh­bour­ing schools will make it known they will con­sider tak­ing pupils,” she says. “But par­ents should not nec­es­sar­ily go for the school that makes over­tures. They may gen­uinely be try­ing to lend a hand but it is also pos­si­ble they have a low-num­bers prob­lem.”

Schools may also teach for dif­fer­ent exam boards, mak­ing chang­ing class­rooms prob­lem­atic for older chil­dren.

Anya Doo­ley, 15, had al­ready been study­ing her GCSE cour­ses for two terms when she heard that her school, St Mar­garet’s in Ex­eter, would close at the end of last sum­mer term. She set up a Face­book group and wrote a col­umn in her lo­cal pa­per to rally sup­port for the school, but the clo­sure went ahead.

Her par­ents found her an­other school but it taught sub­jects set by dif­fer­ent exam boards, mean­ing Anya had to mas­ter new syl­labuses af­ter school each night. “There was in­for­ma­tion that I’d learnt that wasn’t use­ful in some sub­jects and in other sub­jects I hadn’t learnt things that they’d al­ready cov­ered,” she says. “It’s added to the pres­sure of join­ing a new school as I’m es­sen­tially relearning half of the year.”

In­stead of swap­ping schools, some par­ents try to save the ex­ist­ing one. Wal­lis says this is a good op­tion “if the num­ber of teach­ers and fam­i­lies com­mit­ted to the school re­mains strong”.

Par­ents at Tav­i­s­tock and Sum­mer­hill, a prep school in Hay­wards Heath in Sus­sex, tried to res­cue their school when it was threat­ened with clo­sure in 2011. They set up an “ac­tion group” to save it, draw­ing up a busi­ness plan and rais­ing £250,000 to keep it afloat.

Two years later, the school is flour­ish­ing. The par­ents have re­cruited a new head­mas­ter, pupil num­bers have tripled from their low­est point and the school is fore­cast to re­turn to sur­plus next year.

Ber­na­dine Burnell, a found­ing mem­ber of the ac­tion group and chair­man of gov­er­nors, says that pri­vate schools worry too lit­tle about re­cruit­ing new stu­dents. “Big schools are in­cred­i­bly smart about how they mar­ket them­selves and small schools have to in­vest smartly to keep pace with them,” she says. “We can’t just as­sume that our rep­u­ta­tion is go­ing to bring kids through the doors. But there are too many gov­er­nors who pitch up once a term for a sherry and con­grat­u­late them­selves about what a great job they are do­ing.”

But few takeover at­tempts are suc­cess­ful. When Put­ney Park, a girls’ school that oc­cu­pied four Ed­war­dian houses in south-west Lon­don, an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary that it would close this sum­mer, par­ents launched a res­cue mis­sion. “Ev­ery­body said, ‘We’ll fight to save the school,’ but they were all look­ing for an­other place for their child at the same time,” says Au­drey Pak­en­ham-Money, whose 11-year-old daugh­ter, Is­abella, would have started at the school this week. “The school left it late to tell par­ents who, quite rightly, thought of their own child first. If they got a place at an­other school, they took it.”

Is­abella had won a schol­ar­ship only a month be­fore­hand af­ter in­ter­views and a full day of ex­ams. She had pinned the let­ter con­firm­ing her place – in which Jan Black, the act­ing head­mistress, con­grat­u­lated her on her “in­nate and en­gag­ing tal­ent” – to her bed­room wall.

“When I told her it was clos­ing, she was hys­ter­i­cal,” says Pak­en­ham-Money. “It was very stress­ful for her. All the school­child­ren ask each other where they are go­ing next year and she went from know­ing her plans to think­ing, ‘I’ve got no school’. We’d missed the cut­off points for the other schools, be­cause you have to ap­ply the year be­fore. We had no Plan B.”

The fam­ily even­tu­ally found a place at a good school but oth­ers were not so lucky. “It worked out for us but I know par­ents who have ac­cepted places at schools they are not happy with be­cause there is no other op­tion.”

As for How­ell’s, only eight weeks ago, par­ents were danc­ing to a par­ents’ jazz band at the par­ent-teacher as­so­ci­a­tion ball, cel­e­brat­ing the end of an­other suc­cess­ful year. Now they must all find new schools. “Ellysse was do­ing so well that we for­got to think of the school as a busi­ness,” says Steve Grif­fiths. “Never just as­sume that ev­ery­thing is fine.”

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