Is this the end for private schools?

Broke and struggling to survive – private schools are in crisis as unaffordable fees, spiralling wages and an improving state sector threaten a British institution.

Friday, March 13, 2015, Red Nose Day, and Edward Kelly, 12 at the time, a day pupil at St Bees, an independent school in west Cumbria, was raising funds for Comic Relief with a sponsored silence. “It was wonderful,” says his mum, Pippa, who works for the nuclear decommissioning authority and is married to Tom, project manager at Sellafied, the nuclear reprocessing facility.

But then, after lunch, something unusual happened. “The teachers said we needed to go the sports hall for a meeting,” he says. The whole school was assembled – 300 pupils (except for 5 who were on a geography field trip). They were told to wait for James Davies, the headmaster.

What the children didn’t know was the head had been at a governors’ meeting in Carlisle that morning. The outcome had been leaked, hence the need to tell the school as soon as possible. While Edward shrugged and ate his lunch in silence, his headmaster was speeding back along the motorway.

At around 2.30pm, the head appeared. “He said something like, ‘It is our grave sorrow that the school is closing,’” Edward reports. “I thought it was a joke. A Comic Relief joke. Then I realised it wasn’t.”

St Bees was founded in 1583 by Edmund Grindal, archbishop of Canterbury. It’s the kind of school that has dorms, a wood-panelled refectory, chapel, cricket nets, hog roasts every summer, and charged up to £30,000 a year for boarders. It had survived two world wars and a calamitous decision in the 18th century to sell off mining rights for much less than they were worth. Former pupils include the actor Rowan Atkinson, Stuart Lancaster, the former coach of England’s rugby team, and Bill Barker, the policeman who was killed in the floods in Cumbria in 2009 (his daughter Emma also went to St Bees).

So that was that. After 432 years, St Bees was over. “My first thought was why, and then I thought, where?” says Edward. “Where were we all going to go?”

Although superficially there is a plenitude of private schools to choose from and the benefits of independent education have made it a favourite among the rich and aspirational, there is a crisis happening in Britain’s private sector. Many schools are operating at half capacity and heads can’t afford to keep going.

In the past ten years the percentage of children at independent schools has slipped by 4.8 per cent, according to the Department for Education. Blame above-inflation rises in fees pushing private education beyond middle earners and downward spiralling wages, a strengthening state sector and a change in fashion – parents less willing to send their children 500 miles away to board.

In February, Ralph Lucas, who publishes The Good Schools Guide, predicted longterm decline in the private sector. The guide’s first edition in 1986 recommended ten state schools. Last year almost a third – 265 out of 888 listed – were state-funded. In the latest digital edition, the number was 319.

Independent schools set to close this year include Sunderland High, a day school for 3 to 18-year-olds in Tyne and Wear (after 133 years). Ranked 16th in the top 100 prep schools, it is the alma mater of the journalist Kate Adie, and a school parents were proud of.

“In the 14 year groups there were a total of just over 240 pupils at the point of the closure,” says Jon Coles, group chief executive of United Learning, which owns the school. “Not long ago, there were 600 pupils at the school. As the post-2008 recession hit, numbers dropped very sharply.”

Another is Chilton Cantelo, a mixed day and boarding school for 4 to 18-year-olds near Yeovil, Somerset (after 27 years). “Historically most boarders were from families stationed at a nearby military base who qualified for the Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA). But legislative changes that came into effect in 2011 reduced CEA eligibility and this has had a direct effect on pupil numbers,” Margaret Kubicek, the spokesperson for Cognita, the company that owns the school, writes in an email (she declined to be interviewed). “Pupil numbers have almost halved,” she explained. She went on to explain the impending closure of another Cognita school, Cranbrook School, in Ilford, Essex, an independent school for 3 to 16-year-olds, described as “a good little school” by Ralph Lucas (after 120 years). “Expanding school provision in the local area – particularly in the state sector – has had a significant impact, with 10 schools having opened or expanded in the past 5 years alone.”

St Richard’s, a Catholic prep and boarding school for 3 to 13-year-olds in Bromyard, north Herefordshire, will also close this July (after 95 years). The St Richard’s crest is of royal crowns but it might have been Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. It has firm but fair rules (only one piece of “tuck” – sweets – for all boarders on Wednesday evenings; two pieces at weekends), tea parties, 35 acres of fields and 6 ponies for inter-school riding competitions. “Undeniably old-fashioned,” said The Good Schools Guide, which it meant as a compliment.

“To say too much about our precise circumstances right now would be tactless,” said Fred de Falbe, the headmaster, when we speak on the phone, a few days after the closure was made public, and he was still in the “paroxysms” of the announcement. “But there is a lot of competition, albeit it friendly competition, which makes it tough to exist.”

“Nothing big or central has closed yet,” says Lucas. “But it’s like some sign of ageing on the twigs of an old beech tree. [The independent sector] has probably got another century or three left in it, but it is definitely fraying at the edges. What you see are symptoms,” he continues. “You see Ampleforth and Shrewsbury going co-ed. There is a push there. I don’t see those schools disappearing, but co-ed is an adaption.” The demand for boarding and single-sex schools has fallen over the past 30 years, although boarding for older children is now rising.

Merging schools is a further symptom. Nine schools merged last year. Falling numbers are also behind the recent amalgamation of two girls’ schools in Bristol: Redland High School for Girls and Red Maids’ School.

One of the things that has happened as society has become more stratified – the southeast prospering; the north more economically depressed – is the sector is divided. The number of independent school pupils in London has increased by 13 per cent since 2008; those in the northeast have fallen by 17 per cent, according to the Department for Education.

“Schools that have been dying are by and large distant from London and serving a traditional English community. Schools that have been growing are the ones within London – ones that specialise in international parents, whether resident here or abroad, and religious-based schools, notably Islamic and Jewish. So there has been a shift away from what you might call the natives,” says Lucas. What we have, he says, “is a change of style”.

An emblem of the new is the Harrodian School, founded 23 years ago in Barnes, south London, on the site of the sports ground for employees of Harrods department store. Former pupils include the actor Robert Pattinson, comedian Jack Whitehall and Assisi and Amba Jackson, granddaughters of Mick Jagger. Last year, its founder, Sir Alford Houstoun-Boswall, awarded himself an annual dividend of nearly £10 million. (Eliana, his wife of 25 years, was headmistress at the school until their divorce in 1996; she went on to set up her own independent school, Hampton Court House School, in Bushy Park, southwest London in 2001.)

The other big successes are the Alpha Plus Group’s Wetherby School and Pembridge Hall, in west London. “Probably two of the most in-demand single-sex prep schools in London,” according to one insider. Wetherby Senior School opened last September.

Alpha Plus represents a departure, being a for-profit company, as does Cognita, set up in 2004 by the late Sir Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, which owns 68 schools around the globe. Private schools are typically run as charities, with the advancement of education, not profit, being the aim.

“Inevitably, the success of the past few years had got big companies wanting a slice of the action,” says William Petty, director of Bonas MacFarlane, providers of private tuition and educational advice. And this corporate shift could result in different priorities. “If you’re a company with multiple schools, you are also looking at economies of scale and the bottom line,” says Petty.

But within London there is great buoyancy in the market, owing to an influx of foreigners and a shortage of independent education. “London currently and probably for the next ten years is globally perceived by ultra-high net worth individuals to be the safest haven for everything: education, investment, property, lifestyle, safety,” says Petty, who sources British schools for the children of the global elite. Ninety per cent of his clients are international, from such countries as Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and the Middle East.

George Orwell might have shared his prep school, St Cyprian’s, with “a few exotics” back in 1911 – “South American boys, sons of Argentine beef barons, one or two Russians …” Now one in five new students comes from abroad, according to the Independent Schools Council. The biggest contingent come from China and Hong Kong, with more than 10,000 of the 27,000 overseas pupils attending British independent schools last year. Russia is next with 2,800, followed by Germany with 1,900 and Spain with 1,200.

“We have the champagne brand,” says Lucas. “It’s been a great success, the marketing of British education.” But while “marquee” schools – big-name schools that are globally recognised – are flourishing, lower-tier schools are struggling. “They’re being eclipsed,” Petty explains. “That is why schools are shutting, if they’re near an Oakham, Oundle, Rugby, Uppingham, who’ve seen their success blossom in the past 20 years.”

“[Overseas students] are a great source of strength and numbers,” Lucas continues. “There are obviously schools that need fewer of them, and that’s one of the balancing acts you have to work if you’re going to make a success of an independent school. If you push too far, then it just becomes a school with international kids in it. It’s no longer what the international kids want and it’s no longer what the Brits aspire to.”

At Cobham Hall, for example, the independent day and boarding school for girls aged 11-18, in Cobham, Kent (old girls include the broadcaster Mishal Husain and the journalist Mary Ann Sieghart), around 40 per cent are foreign nationals, rising to about 60 per cent in the sixth form.

“Most schools have 10 to 12 per cent, so 40 per cent is huge,” says an educational consultant. “But they are very strict. If the girls are caught speaking their own language during the day they have minor sanctions, such as helping in the kitchen. So they really take trouble over integration. Whereas in some schools, particularly mainland Chinese are not that keen on integrating and just talk among themselves.”

But then Cobham Hall has always been outward-looking. It was founded as an international boarding school for girls in 1962. “It used to be very fashionable,” the consultant continues. “Quite a lot of my friends used to go there. And then somehow it fell off the map and everyone seemed to go to Benenden. Of course, it’s not in a brilliant position. It’s just off the M2, right over near Gravesend and not in pretty countryside, and so not the place you’d choose if you’re looking to move out of London and commute.” Numbers have fallen from 215 to 159.

Last year, King William’s College, the co-ed boarding and day school for 11 to 18-year-olds on the Isle of Man, invited a group of Chinese journalists to tour the school. “It’s keen to build on the 10 to 15 students from China it receives every year,” reports Cecily Liu in a recent edition of the China Daily. She sees its big pluses as a campus that “looks like a castle” and “its close proximity to Britain”, making it “a good place to prepare students for entry to a British university”.

Geography plays a big part, confirms Petty. “Inevitably schools with majority British who aren’t in plum or commuter areas are going to really suffer.”

———-

St Bees is a remote village overlooking the Irish Sea, in west Cumbria. It is populated by 1,801 people and several sheep and is near a spot called St Bees Head – the most westerly point in northern England. To reach St Bees from London, you catch a train to Carlisle. Then you have to travel on a small train that makes the 43-mile journey east to St Bees 10 times a day (there is no Sunday service), stopping in many Cumbrian coastal villages along the way. A day trip takes over 10 hours.

And so on a bright Saturday morning in March I pull into St Bees railway station (where the barrier crossing is operated in the old-fashioned way by a cosy-looking woman who climbs into the signal box) and see right away the magnificent expanse of St Bees School. There are tremendous grounds with banks of daffodils, rugby pitch, tennis courts, cricket nets, and rising above it all the immensity of the school buildings, some dating back to Elizabethan times. Adding to the effect is a lush lawn (newly mown) and a St Bees minibus parked outside the school office, which is odd, because the school shut down last July.

“The school was mothballed last summer, but we have a staff of six looking after it,” explains Tom Kelly, father of Edward and clerk to the trustees who are working with the St Beghian Society (old boys and girls) and St Bees Enterprises (the commercial arm of the school, which runs the golf course and the management centre) to re-open the school.

He takes me inside and it’s like the Mary Celeste. Everything looks as it would have done on the last day: coffee mugs and tea caddies in the staff room; pigeonholes filled with papers; the clock ticking (an hour behind because of the subsequent time change). And in the school reception with its flagstone floors and lofty ceilings, there are school notices – QM club is back!! – and a plaque etched with the roll call of headmasters (and one headmistress) dating back to 1583, ending with the last entry: “Mr J Davies 2012- ”.

I meet Edward and his mother, Pippa, in the memorial hall, a large, echoing room, where Tom has set up a table and a heater. The hall used to be used for assemblies and concerts, Edward explains, most notably the school “sing-off” – in which all pupils had to compete.

“It feels really weird to be here,” he says.

His last memory of St Bees is of the final day. “Everyone was really upset. People were just going around crying. Some of the dinner ladies came out and started crying as well. Everyone was really sad.” Edward’s younger brother, Douglas, was also upset because the plan was for him to go to St Bees too.

The family moved to the village of St Bees from Essex in 2007; Tom had grown up in Cleator Moor, four miles from St Bees. The boys went to the local village school. “When Edward was due to go to secondary school, we looked at all the different options – state, private – and came around to St Bees,” says Pippa.

They liked the fact that it was close, had a friendly feel and wide-ranging activities. It’s only now that they are elsewhere that former pupils have realised that not all schools offer Combined Cadet Force adventure training and boarders’ barbecues.

Edward was in classes of 10-15. “One person was from China,” he remembers. “At the beginning he didn’t know that much English. He could only say yes to questions.” Before it closed, one third of the pupils were boarders, many from China and Eastern Europe.

“We were aware there had been some issues with the school and the head had a limited time to turn things around,” Pippa says. “But as far as we could see things were being done to the building, so we all assumed you wouldn’t do that if you were a school in trouble.” These include new signs for the golf course, and the dormitories refurbished with new kitchens, carpets, wi-fi and power showers.

“It was such an integral part of the village,” says Sue Hooper, accountant and mother of three children who went to St Bees, when we meet later that day. Her family live in the village and she lists other less obvious “victims” of the closure: the parish vicar, a father of five, who was also chaplain of the school and part-paid by the school and so lost his job (the parish currently has no vicar and the vicarage is empty); the village shop, pub and post office, who have lost the custom of pupils and teachers. (Foreign students would often post luggage back home.)

“What always struck me was when you drove through St Bees you always saw young people either in uniform or sports gear,” she says. “All different nationalities in this little village in west Cumbria, and it was fantastic. Now it feels empty and hollow.”

Edward now goes to Austin Friars, an independent day school in Carlisle. His mother says they tried to get him into Keswick School, a state academy ranked “outstanding” by Ofsted, but it was full. He gets up at six in the morning and is driven to Whitehaven, where he gets the bus to Carlisle. He gets back at around 6.30 in the evening. His walk to St Bees took 20 minutes.

“I’m doing OK,” he says, “apart from in geography. I’m not a big fan of that.”

There are two theories about why St Bees closed. The reasons laid out by Professor HF Woods, the chairman of governors, who was a lecturer in medicine at Oxford University and a St Beghian, in an email that parents received at around 2pm on March 13, include expense – “Fewer families find themselves in a position to afford school fees”; lack of boarders from UK families resident in this country, and remoteness: St Bees, he points out, is an hour from the nearest mainline station, the motorway and “more than two hours from major centres of population. Consequently, other schools, less difficult to reach, have an inescapable advantage over us.” (Professor Woods died in January.)

Many parents, however, believe it is down to poor management and insufficient marketing. That is why their frustration levels are so high. They argue that school numbers had in fact risen from a low of 240 eight years ago. St Bees was back to full capacity.

The area, Sue Hooper points out, is not economically parched. The Copeland district is home to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site, which employs more than 10,000 people, many on high salaries. The county boasts median weekly wages of around double the surrounding area, according to a survey of salaries across Great Britain in 2014.

But it is remote, I say. “I would play on that remoteness,” Sue replies. “Say you live somewhere very built up, what could be better than sending your child to the Lake District?” It is true that some schools successfully play up their quintessential Britishness, such as Hanford, a girls’ prep school for 100 or so pupils, aged 7 to 13, deep in remote Dorset, where girls ride ponies before breakfast and are encouraged to climb trees. “We have one international family who put three daughters in there recently,” said Petty. “Five years ago we would have thought, no way would a Russian take this seriously.”

Then there is the issue of bursaries. The cost of school fees – upwards now of £26,000 a year for a boarding school in London and £33,000 for Eton – has priced many privately educated parents out of the market. “My parents paid £75,000 for my five years at Harrow less than 20 years ago,” says one parent. “Now that would be pretty much double.” He says it would cost £270,000 to send his twins to his old prep school in Battersea, from reception to year six. “I’d have to earn over half a million quid to pay for that, and wouldn’t have much left. I’ve put their names down just in case there’s a lottery win. Otherwise I’m going to church.” Twice a month is the criterion for his local state primary.

There is one big challenge facing private schools, many believe: how do you get back the people who got them there in the first place? Because this generation just can’t afford it. And the answer, of course, is bursaries. You offer discounts to draw more pupils to schools and take the population up to critical mass. “Independent schools have spent a lot of time and effort in the past ten years raising money for bursaries, and 33 per cent of pupils at independent schools are now on a reduced fee and an increasing proportion of those are on means-tested bursaries,” points out Barnaby Lenon, the chairman of ISC. At Manchester Grammar School, the independent day school, 220 out of 1,480 pupils are on bursaries and the average bursary is 93 per cent.

Ken Ford-Powell, a freelance writer and former teacher, returned to St Bees in 2013, having spent five years in Bangladesh working for an NGO with his wife, Vikki, and their two children, Sam, 13, and Jessica, 15. “We came back as poor as church mice and didn’t think St Bees would be possible, but at the open days they would say, no, we welcome people like you.” He paid £200 a month for Sam and Jessica. (The fees would have been £4,000 a term for each child.) “It was done very much by gentleman’s agreement. Lots of emails from the bursar – just pay what you can afford and we’ll cover the rest.”

In general, money for bursaries and scholarships is raised from business or from old boys, or franchise schools abroad, where British public schools open outposts over the globe, most recently Marlborough College in Malaysia. The British educational empire has grown from zero in 2000 to 50 this year.

At St Bees, however, the money for bursaries came out of income generated by fees. “There was no other income stream,” says Sue Hooper. “Bursaries were funded from the fee income revenues earned by the school and it was reported by the then incumbent board that the majority of the intake of [day pupils for] September 2015 would have been on some form of bursary support,” confirms a spokesperson for St Bees.

———-

Later, I meet Lisa Roycroft at her home in Mashbury, in rural Essex, where she lives with her husband, Alasdair, a company director, and her two sons, Luca, 9, and Tate, 5. Her boys used to go to FKS, a small and extremely nurturing pre-prep for children aged 4-11 in Felsted, Essex. “The state school in our catchment area was really bad and so we started looking at independent schools,” Lisa explains. “FKS had such a homely, warm feeling. Luca just loved it. He would be skipping into school and it was a lovely drive down the village lanes to get to the school. It was magical, actually, and we felt really blessed.”

Then during the Easter holidays last year, “We were just going out to Aldeburgh for the day and I grabbed the post on the way out.” There was a letter from Valerie Lipman, the owner of FKS, announcing that the school would be closing in July. Lipman, who had inherited the school from her mother, the school’s founder, was retiring.

“I was obviously trying to keep it a secret from the boys and trying to discuss it with Alasdair, but they overheard the conversation and said, what’s this? The school is closing? And we said, of course it is. It’s the Easter holidays. But we were in a panic.”

Lisa moved the boys three weeks into the summer term. “It was just horrendous. The teachers were all sad and they kept bursting into tears. They were meant to be starting swimming lessons and that was all cancelled. And with all these parents needing to find new schools it became a backstabbing environment with parents actually falling out. In Luca’s year, there was one place available at Felsted School [a high-ranking independent school] and there were five children who wanted that place and they had to sit an exam and the school took the one with the highest mark and that was it.”

She moved Luca and Tate to St Margaret’s, a prep school in Gosfield, a 30-minute drive away. Tate was very happy, but Luca did not settle. He would refuse to get on the school bus, and started to become anxious, chewing his cuffs and his tie and wanting to sleep in his parents’ bed. “He was so distraught, we’d have two hours of crying every evening: ‘Please don’t make me go to school tomorrow. Please don’t make me,’” says Lisa.

“I didn’t like that it was far away and I didn’t like that it was really big. It made me feel a bit lost,” Luca says. St Margaret’s has a student population of 200. Luca went on to be home-schooled for a month or so, and after taster days at various other schools is happy settled in Ford End, a nearby state primary with 72 pupils.

Tate, meanwhile, is still at St Margaret’s. The brothers have become emblems of the different systems. “Tate has more homework than me,” says Luca. “We only get homework once a week. We used to get homework every day at FKS. It took about an hour and a half sometimes.” Nor does his new school have a football or rugby team. “FKS used to borrow rugby and football fields from Felsted Prep,” Lisa says, “so they had great facilities.”

“Luca was challenged more in the independent system,” she continues, but she is nevertheless impressed with the state primary. “The teachers are really enthusiastic and driven and do their best to offer a wide curriculum.” She is clearly still angry, however, about the abrupt end to FKS. “She [the owner] didn’t even have much input in the school. The blood of the school was the teachers and parents.”

What did you think when you heard that FKS was closing, I ask Luca. “Mummy said that schools aren’t allowed to close unless it’s confirmed by the government.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, biting her lip. “I never thought a school could close just like that.”

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