‘Never just assume everything is fine’
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.”