Old and poorly maintained school buildings could hasten the closure of what was once a proud Catholic girls’ school.
By our education correspondent, GENE BRODIE
A landmark Victorian school building in Upper Norwood is “not currently safe for pupils and staff” and has been deemed to be beyond repair, forcing Croydon Council to tell the parents and carers of 240 pupils that they will have to go to other schools in September.
The school’s longer-term future is “uncertain”, according to the council.
Virgo Fidelis Catholic girls’ school had already been highlighted by the council as being under threat of closure before this latest blow.
The school’s staff were advised of the dire situation in a letter dated July 30 – barely four weeks before the start of the new school year.
The letter was from Croydon Council, as the local education authority, signed jointly by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark’s education commission and the school’s interim executive board, or IEB. Staff were told that Year 10 pupils would need to attend lessons at another school, while the new intake of Year 7 girls was to be “suspended” altogether. Pupils in Years 8, 9 and 11 will continue to be taught at the school in Upper Norwood.
“The immediate future is very uncertain, so we would ask for full co-operation,” the council letter pleaded.
The letter said, “Following a report received by the IEB, a number of tours of the school and upon advice from buildings professionals including a chartered surveyor and a buildings control officer, we have concluded that even the buildings that the new leadership of the school had intended to use in September are not currently safe for pupils and staff.”
Virgo Fidelis school was founded in south London 172 years ago by an order of French nuns, and its large, Gothic-style buildings were constructed in the years immediately after. According to the council letter, they are showing their age.
The council letter says, “It is two years since many of the problems were brought to the Trustees’ attention but there is no evidence that significantly robust repairs have been made.
“You can infer from this that the consultants have judged that the main building, in particular, is no longer safe to use.
“Advisors have given us a clear indication that the buildings are now beyond economic repair. We are also acutely aware that the school has no money to make the buildings good… There is no likelihood of being able [to] find grant funding to make the necessary repairs.”
The plan to send Virgo Fidelis’ Year 10 pupils to another Catholic school has also been marked with confusion and caused outrage from some parents.
The 14-year-olds in Year 10 are about to begin their GCSE courses. The school’s staff were first told that they will be expected to be taught at St Joseph’s College on Beulah Hill. Then the plan was changed, with the those involved told that they will need to report instead to St Mary’s High School at West Croydon.
These 120 pupils face potentially huge disruption – as if the past six months of school closures due to covid-19 has not been enough. The short distance between Virgo Fidelis and St Joseph’s may not have proved too demanding for teachers having to shuttle between the two sites, but the journey between Upper Norwood and West Croydon is altogether more time-consuming for already hard-pressed staff.
And while St Mary’s is also a Catholic school, it is co-educational – causing anger among those parents who deliberately chose a single-sex religious school for their daughters.
“This will just mean that there will just be a further drift of pupils away from the school, and it will be more starved of funding,” a source familiar with the school’s problems told Inside Croydon.
The short notice given to parents of these important changes is “just incompetence on the part of the school management, the Interim Executive Board and Croydon Council”.
Some Year 7 girls in Croydon who expected to be starting their secondary schooling at Virgo Fidelis were offered places at schools as far away as the Elephant and Castle and Tulse Hill.
A Croydon Council spokesperson said, “Virgo Fidelis Convent Senior School is a Voluntary Aided Catholic comprehensive for girls in the trusteeship of the Congregation of Our Lady of Fidelity.
“The council is arranging an alternative secondary school for each affected pupil, either one proposed by the council or one of the parent or carer and young person’s own choice.”
The IEB, which was imposed on the school by the council and took over from the board of governors, made the decision to move the Year 10 girls.
“The IEB has also proposed to move Year 10 Virgo Fidelis pupils to an annexe at St Mary’s Catholic High School to help them prepare for their GCSEs in 2021-2022,” the council spokesperson said.
“All remaining year groups at Virgo Fidelis will be taught in one building on campus which meets health and safety requirements, and the council will continue to work with the Education Commission for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, school staff and governors to ensure pupils are given the best possible ongoing support for their education and learning.
“Croydon Council will be working closely with the IEB and the diocese to look at future options for the school.”
As Inside Croydon revealed exclusively in May, when Hilary Meyer resigned “for personal reasons” as Virgo Fidelis’ headteacher, her deputy, Alexandra Fernandez, became the fourth head at the school in just three years.
But even Fernandez is not hanging around – she had already decided to leave the school before Meyer’s announcement.
From September 1, headteacher No5 since 2017 – or “interim executive head”, as she was described in a letter to parents last month – is to be Grainne Grabowski, while George Montillas, who was previously deputy head at St Joseph’s, has been appointed as “interim head of school”.
They arrive to a school struggling to operate within the financial constraints and demands laid down by the government. They also take over at a school which is effectively under scrutiny from the three-person IEB.
An IEB is appointed when the council is concerned about the governance of a school. At Virgo Fidelis, the IEB is understood to be investigating health and safety, the school finances and educational standards.
“Parents were not told about the interim governors,” said the source. “It was all done behind the backs of the Holy Sisters, the nuns who own the buildings and its grounds and who established the school 172 years ago.
“The nuns only found out from members of staff.”
The school, with falling pupil numbers, has been receiving decreasing amounts of funding. In April 2019, Virgo Fidelis was listed in a council report as one of three schools in the borough at “high risk” of being forced to close.
As well as its high turnover of senior staff, Virgo Fidelis has the biggest budget deficit of any school in Croydon, it has lost its Sixth Form, and was already struggling with falling rolls before it had its 2020 intake taken away. The unsafe buildings and no money to repair them makes the council assessment of Virgo Fidelis’s future as being “very uncertain” appear to be a massive understatement.
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