Parents' concern at St Margaret's School closure
PARENTS and former pupils of a city school which has announced it is to close in August have launched a campaign to save it.
The independent St Margaret’s School in Magdalen Road, St Leonard’s, will close on August 31 at the end of the current academic year.
The school, which has 214 pupils and is currently ranked fourth in the GCSE result league tables in Devon, has blamed low forecasts for new pupils for the closure.
A number of parents have expressed concerns about the move, which came shortly after the launch of a three-year recovery plan, while others are mounting a campaign to see it continue as a Free School.
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There is also anger that the announcement came after fees, which range from £1,783 per term in reception to £3,548 in years eight to 11, had been collected for the spring term. With parents having to give a full terms’ notice if their child wishes to leave, it means anyone currently enrolled at the school will also have to pay for the summer term.
William Long, chairman of governors, said: “I entirely understand that there is a lot of sadness and anger amongst staff, pupils and parents.
“Many are asking why the school should be closed so soon after the initiation of a three year recovery plan. There is talk about broken promises from the board and from St Margaret’s owners, the Woodard Group.
“At the start of the three year recovery plan, like most independent schools, St Margaret’s needed access to loan facilities and cash flow support. However, St Margaret’s trading position meant it was difficult to access commercial funding sources.
“As a result, Woodard stepped in to provide the funding required in the form of a medium-term loan and short-term financial support. The last thing Woodard wanted was to see the school close, and they have been tremendously supportive in keeping the school running.
“Unfortunately, when the Governing body reviewed the school’s financial situation leading up to the critical second year of the plan, it was clear that forecast pupil numbers were extremely low. This in itself made it clear the school faced a loss in 2013-14 having forecast a break even, but it also meant we could no longer rely on obtaining external, commercial funding needed in the long-term. As a result, the Governors made the difficult decision to close the school.”
He added: “Many have queried the lack of consultation and short notice prior to Friday’s announcement; regrettably, we were constricted by the need for confidentiality. We have timed the announcement to ensure that the school can continue to run to the end of the current school year, enabling those pupils who are sitting exams to do so, and to give parents sufficient time to find alternative schooling for their children in future years.”
Parents have been invited to a meeting to discuss the closure on Thursday, January 31 and acting headteacher Lee Bergin is due to set out plans for “the alternative education options and support available to pupils including for those part way through their GCSEs”. Representatives of Woodard schools in Taunton, Somerset, will be attending the meeting to offer pupils places while Wellington School, also in Somerset, is offering open days for pupils.
The school was founded in 1902 and achieved a 90 per cent pass rate for students gaining five A* to C grades at GCSE in 2012. It closed its sixth form last year as “part of a strategic vision for educational provision within Exeter” saying it wanted to focus on providing education from pupils aged three to 16.
The Save St Margaret’s School campaign on Facebook has, so far, gathered more than 500 supporters.
As part of it, parents and former pupils are being urged to write to the Woodard Group “referring to the short notice, lack of consultation, and the broken promise of giving Lee Bergin time to turn the school around” adding that “if they see that there is enough weight of opinion and passion against the move then they may reconsider and agree a stay of execution to enable the stakeholders to suggest better ways forward”.
Steps are also being taken to apply for Free School status to preserve St Margaret’s – turning it into a state-funded school set up in response to what parents say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.
A spokesman for the campaign said: “This would abolish the fee system and therefore solve the problem of the number of applicants being too low.
“This is likely to be a long and difficult process, and requires the commitment of a decent number of parents and staff and should therefore not to be taken on lightly. However, if we were able to convince Woodard to give the school the financial support needed until the process is complete, I think this could well be the way to save the school.”
The window to submit an application to open a Free School in 2014 closed earlier this month so campaigners would need to find a way to keep the school running until 2015 if their application is successful.
Other city schools have offered to help with the continuation of education for pupils with Bee Hughes, headteacher of the Maynard School, saying: “Our priority is to ensure the on-going education of students of all ages and we will do our utmost to help provide continuity of learning in uncertain times. We will naturally support the pupils and staff of St Margaret’s in the transition process.”
Several parents have also told the Echo they have deeper concerns about the closure announcement.
One, who asked not to be named, said: “I was very surprised that a number of staff members, not teaching staff, found about the closure through word of mouth. I could not believe it when they told me.”
Another, who also wished to remain anonymous said: “I question the timing of the announcement. It seems to me as if they waited until they had cleared the first of the 2013 term’s money and then announced. This means all parents that have just paid will not be able to give a full terms’ notice as is required and will have to pay for the summer term.
“In my view, things have been going downhill in the last few year’s since Maureen D’Albertanson departed.
“Attendance at recent open days was really poor, and teachers constantly seem to be leaving. Exeter School and Maynard seem to be thriving so I cannot understand how economic problems are so serious as St Margaret’s.”
Katie Hopkins, the Exeter-based TV personality who runs a business consultancy firm, has a son at the school.
She said: “I feel that the school has announced this at the worst possible time. Now that we’re into the spring term, the application period to get pupils transferred into local state schools has gone. What is has done is secured the fees it takes from parents until the end of the year. It will impact on the education of all pupils but particularly those who are their first year of studying for GCSEs.
“I feel the governing body should resign. They have misspoken in the past year about the security and future of the school, and parents are disappointed.
“A lot of parents with a wealth of corporate
experience have offered to become parent governors to help the school with the problems it faces. As far as I am aware, none of these offers were taken up.
“It is such a pity that such a good school will have to close especially when it has a number of assets. I understand that the school’s debt is less than the sale of one of the buildings could realise so surely there are better solutions.”