Education correspondent GENE BRODIE reports on the latest setback suffered by one of the borough’s oldest schools
Virgo Fidelis girls’ convent school in Upper Norwood will start the new school term in September with its fifth headteacher in barely three years, following the resignation last week of Hilary Meyer.
The high turnover of senior staff has come against a backdrop of the biggest school budget deficit in Croydon, the closure of the school’s Sixth Form, and falling rolls.
Virgo Fidelis was listed in a council report in April 2019 as one of three schools in the borough at “high risk” of being forced to close. One of the others, St Andrew’s in Old Town, will lock its school gates for a final time at the end of this summer term.
Hilary Meyer’s departure from Virgo Fidelis, announced in an email to parents last Wednesday, is “for personal reasons”.
“I wish to assure pupils, parents and staff that the governing body is taking urgent steps to secure the future leadership of the school,” wrote chair of governors Christine Bell.
Although only announced last week, Meyer’s departure was not all that sudden: she had been away from work on sick leave for two months. Her deputy head, Alex Fernandez, is listed on the school’s website as having been appointed as a governor in March 2020 as “acting headteacher”.
It is understood that although Fernandez intends to stay to the end of this academic year in July, she, too, has resigned.
Meyer, who previously taught at Coloma, another all-girls’ catholic school in Croydon, joined Virgo Fidelis in 2018 after her predecessor, Jocelyn Lewis, had left after only eight months in the job.
Housed in a large Gothic building on Central Hill, Virgo Fidelis was founded by nuns in 1848 and was originally an independent school but “opted in” to the state system. It now appears to be struggling with falling school rolls and mounting 21st-century budget problems.
While Croydon Council and the Department for Education continue to build for free schools and academies, creating an over-capacity of secondary school places in the borough, Virgo Fidelis appears caught in the same funding trap as another state church school in Croydon, St Andrew’s.
Anyone who saw the agonies endured by staff, pupils and parents at St Andrew’s in its last few years may recognise the death throes of a school in what has been happening at Virgo Fidelis. Like St Andrew’s, Virgo Fidelis has already had to close its Sixth Form because a lack of pupils meant it was unable to offer the breadth of A Level syllabus demanded by thrusting young teens eager to accumulate student debt at university. That makes the school less attractive to parents and teachers alike.
Another academy, over the borough boundary in Lambeth, has also drawn pupils away from Virgo Fidelis, which according to parents has suffered a diminished reputation and so has endured slowly falling rolls. Virgo Fidelis has been forced to shrink from being a four-form entry to just 60 new pupils each year.
Fewer pupils mean less cash for hiring teaching staff, or even for paying for other routine services and up-keep. The education system’s funding formula, which appears to favour academy trusts, has delivered an un-virtuous circle for council-controlled schools such as St Andrew’s and Virgo Fidelis.
According to Croydon Council figures, 30.3 per cent of local authority maintained secondary schools were in deficit in 2017-2018 – almost four times more than in 2014.
Virgo Fidelis built up a budget deficit of £1.7million, more than any other school in the borough; St Andrew’s deficit was £1.3million, while Archbishop Tenison’s had the next greatest deficit of £433,000.
Schools with funding deficits are expected to cut their budgets and balance the books, and that usually means cutting teaching jobs. In 2017-2018, Virgo Fidelis had 45 teachers, and they appeared to be under increasing strain, too, as it was also reported to be among the London schools with one of the worst rates of sick leave. Virgo Fidelis teachers were absent ill for an average of 10 days each in the academic year.
Croydon’s role as an education authority is much reduced since the arrival of academies, but it still has responsibilities for running a cluster of primaries and secondaries, including Virgo Fidelis.
Aspects of the school’s mounting finance crisis were on the agenda for discussion at the council’s influential General Purposes and Audit Committee in April 2019, with a presentation on “Schools in deficit”. It is this report that describes Virgo Fidelis as at “high risk”.
The report explains how there is some risk to council finances when a school in deficit closes, because it is the local authority which is left to absorb all the costs.
But for reasons which have never been made clear, the Labour council’s cabinet member for finance, Simon Hall, decided that the item should not be considered by the committee.
Which was probably not altogether in the best interests of finding some solution to the travails of the pupils, parents and teachers at Virgo Fidelis.
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