Our education correspondent, GENE BRODIE, on how an Opus Dei Catholic education trust is paying the £5m cost of repairs to a grand Gothic building in Upper Norwood, while Croydon Council Tax-payers are still getting stung with a £4m bill from a closing state school
A major £5million repair project, and a grand version of musical chairs over the summer involving four schools, will see a landmark building in Upper Norwood given a new lease of life, while hundreds of pupils face much longer journeys to school from September.
But the £4million over-budget spend of a struggling state school will be a debt left for cash-strapped Croydon Council to pick up.
Virgo Fidelis girls’ convent school is closing this July after more than 160 years. Under local authority control, earlier this year the council took the (predictable) decision to close the school, after falling rolls, poor financial controls and a rapid turnover of staff.
But the final, fatal blow for a school founded in 1857 was the rapidly deteriorating state of the poorly maintained Gothic building, which saw chartered surveyors and buildings control officer last year declare it as “not currently safe for pupils and staff”.
Plans for the annual September intake of 11-year-olds were scrapped and some Virgo Fidelis pupils had to spend their school’s final year dispersed around other girls’ schools in Croydon.
Virgo Fidelis is the second large church secondary school in Croydon to close in just 12 months, and follows St Andrew’s High last July.
And like St Andrew’s, while the council was responsible for the funding and upkeep of Virgo Fidelis (and why the Council Tax-payers are picking up the residual £4million overspend) neither it nor the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark’s education commission owned the grand William Wardell-designed building or its grounds.
The owners are the Sisters of Our Lady of Fidelity, the holy order which established an orphanage and then the girls’ convent school in the mid-19th Century. Nuns continue to occupy part of the site.
With Virgo Fidelis moving out, the nuns wasted little time in lining up new tenants, with PACT, a “catholic ethos” educational trust, agreeing to move in from September 2021, and to pay for the major repair works required to make the building safe and secure.
PACT operates a small chain of fee-paying schools, and three of them are now involved in relocations, including two Croydon schools.
Cedars School, an £18,000 per year private secondary which was founded in 2013, will be moving its boys from their current Georgian building in Lloyd Park to Central Hill. There, they will be joined by sister school, Laurels (“We opened in the basement of one of our prep schools in 2013”), which is currently based at Chelsea Embankment.
With the Cedars’ home off Coombe Road vacated, another PACT school, Oakwood prep (£3,380 per term for 5- to 11-year-olds) will relocate there from their buildings in Purley.
David Guillon, the chairman of the PACT Educational Trust, told Inside Croydon, “The Gothic building was in need of repair before it could operate again safely as a school. We instructed our own contractors, surveyors and structural engineers to assess the structure of the building and the scope of works required to bring it back in line with today’s safety requirements.
“We asked contractors for quotes to fully repair the buildings and provide us with a brand-new interior. As we have successfully fundraised against this multi-million project, we started the full repair of the building in early February. This includes a new supporting structure, new floors, new partitions and new ceilings.
“When the building is ready in August, it will be fully repaired and refurbished, thus providing with a safe and compliant environment for the pupils, whilst retaining the architectural features that contribute to the grandeur of the property.”
Guillon said that the bill for the works would be “in excess of £5million”.
Part of the massive logistical project involving three schools moving over the summer months is the task of somehow making use of the old Virgo Fidelis school site by a separate boys’ and girls’ school, while maintaining them as distinct entities.
Guillon explained, “We want to maintain separate single-sex secondary schools as we have been running them up to now. The setting up of separate schools is not difficult to achieve in such a large site as this one.”
While Cedars has just over 200 pupils, Laurels has 100.
“The Gothic building comprises three wings that operate almost independently. There are two newer buildings that were erected 10 and 50 years ago. Each senior school will operate from both a historic wing of the Gothic building and one ‘new’ building, thus combining the architectural features of a Victorian-era building with the modern provisions of recent facilities.”
Having the two schools on one, much larger site, will also allow PACT certain economies of scale, and areas of cooperation between the schools, such as in careers development and community service.
Oakwood, a co-ed prep with around 130 pupils, has often operated as a feeder for Whitgift and Old Palace independent schools, as well as for PACT’s own secondaries. It will offer “large outdoor and sports facilities” which include cricket, rugby and football pitches in Lloyd Park itself which are council-owned and maintained.
Guillon says that there are no plans to redevelop Oakwood’s current building on the A22 Godstone Road. “Our initial site in Purley has worked perfectly since the start of the school 25 years ago and has seen it through its successive stages in development,” he said.
“We hope to find a smaller school or a nursery to take over this piece of estate from September, or as soon as practicable after that.”
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