Two private schools to move into vacated Virgo Fidelis site

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

For the first time in more than 160 years, the buildings on Central Hill will be used to educate boys as well as girls

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.

PACT says that the Upper Norwood site is big enough for two schools to operate from separately

“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.”

Oakwood School’s new home from September uses council-owned playing fields in Lloyd Park

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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7 Responses to Two private schools to move into vacated Virgo Fidelis site

  1. Lewis White says:

    A “good news” I.C. article, for a change!

    It is very good if this characterful “Victorian Gothic” building is to be saved, restored and used again by schools.

    I like the concept of each of the two Senior schools using one wing of the old building, plus a new building, giving the students a contrasting educational / architectural experience.

    Plus, the re-location of the Oakwood School into the Georgian building in Lloyd Park. Joined-up thinking, plus appropriate use!

    There aren’t many suitable uses for grand houses or grand buildings of these kinds. Hotels, Corporate HQ’s, or residential flats probably the main options.

    Conversion to residential loses something of the original feel that accompanies a single user’s use of substantial achitectural structure of these scales.

    I hope that there will be attention given to the conservation of the landscape of the grounds too– from looking at Gooogle Earth View, I saw that the site is a fantastic survival of private open space in South London, a mix of open grassland (presumably playing fields), and wodland/ tree belts of mature plantings carried out when or even well before the school was built.

    A precious landscape, amazingly not protected by the label “Metropolitan Open Land”.
    I wonder why this designation has not been imposed ?

    With plenty of public parks just across Beulah Hill (Lambeth parks) plus the Upper Norwood Recreation ground (Croydon) a few hundred metres to the South, the local public are probably well-served for parks.

    The students and staff will benefit from the location of the schools in this attractive landscape, with trees, open space, and….. good air quality. Maybe too, real grass playing fields– not artofical grass.

    No doubt, wildife birds–maybe South London owls ?- will benefit from having mature trees in an area without disturbance from the public.

    It all sounds good !

    • So you missed the sub-text about the £4m scam that the holy order has pulled off, nuns on the run with public money, making no contribution to the debt of Virgo Fidelis, while coining it by renting out the building that they failed to maintain and keep safe?

      Or the suspicious land-grab going on over at the old Cedars site, where a chunk of Lloyd Park – public parkland and maintained by the council – is being annexed as a private prep school’s playing fields?

      • Peter Makin says:

        It does seem that way at first but its definitely a bit more nuanced from what I can see. As a retired teacher, and latterly a school governor in voluntary aided schools, the nuns seemingly haven’t done much wrong except perhaps run a failing school – possibly not too difficult to do when the multi-academy trusts of this world are getting millions to build modern, much more attractive buildings – see Coombe Wood School.

        The nuns and Croydon council ran a state school in land and buildings belonging to the nuns and educated Croydon children. The nuns wouldn’t have been able to get an income from the buildings but I’m sure many of them were employed there. The buildings and land must have stayed in their possession as is true of all diocesan schools (Anglican and Catholic) as well as other VA schools. I guess the set up was a post war one – government not having much money for land and buildings etc. so the churches and others were allowed to buy land and have buildings build at public expense less their 20% contribution. The government get a cheaper set up of a school and the local people of whatever faith get a school they’d like to send their children to. Everyone’s a winner I guess.

        The real scandal here is the funding model that allows groups like Harris, Oasis and others to get money from central government to build new buildings and pay their CEOs over £500K a year whilst the local council run schools such as this are unable to access any funds to renovate their buildings. We have to remember here that whilst the nuns owned the building and ran the place with Croydon the council has more than it’s share of responsibility for the upkeep of the building – actually around 80% of the money. This is the privatisation of state schools under another name – the Local Authority’s education is massively undermined and the running of schools is passed over to groups that are not particularly interested in the local population and more importantly, in my opinion, out of the control of our elected council representatives – a huge scandal!

        My prediction is that Archbishop Tennison will go the way of St Andrew’s and Virgo. Poor buildings due to lack of funds, lower teaching salaries and less obvious career progression compared with the MATs lead to fewer pupils and debt. This isn’t not due to the Anglicans or the nuns heading off into the sunset with pots of money but rather the multi-academy trusts being given all the cash at their expense!

        The time is up for the local authority schools, VA or otherwise. The only option for these schools is to go to a academy model and whoever owns the land then has to give up the land and buildings for 125 years with no income on it. Hardly a great deal.

        As for the playing fields at Lloyd Park well I’m not sure what will happen in September they are currently being used by the secondary school and are open for public access – something I and many others were concerned with when the secondary school took them on and greatly relieved that they didn’t annex them off especially over lockdown.

        I guess we’ll wait and see but if they were annexed I for one would be making my voice heard very loudly!

        • You can’t argue with much of what you say here, Peter (not least, because it is absolutely correct).

          In more recent times, the nuns had had less involvement with the school than they did previously, such as when it was an independent girls’ convent school and almost all the teachers were nuns.

          But they retained ownership of the building, while exercising little responsibility for its upkeep and maintenance.

          Together with the diocese, they effectively washed their hands of the £4m debt which the school had accrued, leaving it to the cash-strapped council to pay off.

          Yet now they are able to rent out the premises to a (albeit relatively small) private school trust. Obviously, the repair bills being paid by PACT will form part of the arrangement. But two schools with 200+ pupils paying £18,000 per year each in fees will soon pay those costs off, and the nuns will be quids in.

          Cushty, as Thomas Aquinas never said.

  2. Lewis White says:

    Mea culpa !. I was not aware that the Sisters had been expected to pay for repairs to the school– I had thought that as a Croydon-owned “State School” it was funded 100% or at least largely, by Croydon. Clearly I must do 5000 lines before supper of gruel and a glass of water – “I must pay attention to the subtext of Inside Croydon articles”. In Black “Quink”, with a fountain pen filled by a silvery lever, not a cartridge. And no blotting paper. Biro? Certainly not. Punishable by far worse measures best known to Spanish Inquisitors.

    Incidentally, thinking of Spain, I am wondering why the Opus Dei could not pay for the repairs which might well have saved Virgo Fidelis, instead of waiting for their building to deteriorate so badly before stepping in to host another set of Catholic schools?

    With regard to Lloyd Park playing fields, if they are going to be used fully, that will justify keeping them as playing fields into the future. Underused playing fields get re-designated as “brown field sites” and tend to get built on.

    Underused Council buildings like mansions also tend to decline and decay over decades if they are un- or under-used. It took a big National Lottery Grant to restore Danson House in Bexley. The mansion at Beckenham Place Park in the ownership of Lewisham Council has languished for decades until very recently, but is still unrestored. It needs a few Million to be spent.

    Old buildings don’t just need love, they need cash, and plenty of it.

    Croydon need to ensure that the council gets paid fairly for a long lease,on the Lloyd playing fields and the Georgian Mansion, but this time, make sure that it is a “Full repairing lease” with total clarity about standards of upkeep,a detailed pre-let building condition structural and condition appraisal. Plus rent reviews at appropriate intervals, to avoid ending up with a nasty bill as with Virgo Fidelis.

    Maybe a deal could be worked out to allow public and local club hire or free access at evenings and weekends, thus allowing a wider section of local sports people to continue to use the fields.

    I hasten to add that I have not visited the mansion nor playing fields, but have visited Danson Park Mansion before and after restoration, and worked for 2 years in the Beckenham Place Park mansion, in the 1970’s , and have re–visited several times sicnce the recent and excellent restoration of the surrounding park, lake and and stables yard buildings paid for by Lewisham and the Lottery. The BPP mansion needs another Lottery project. Unless Opus Dei can assist. ?

    • Peter Makin says:

      As I said above Virgo is 80% funded (including building maintenance) and 20% by the nuns.

      With regard to Opus Dei and their involvement I’ve always wondered this. I do have an old colleague who’s grandchildren attend this school and she assures me that Opus Dei provide the chaplain rather than any funds but that a separate charity operates the school – I’d like to know how many of the board are in Opus Dei however.

      The Coombe House building has been out of local authority hands for many years so I can only presume that the current occupants own it – a good job too as local authorities across the country seemingly can’t maintain these buildings and Croydon is no exception. They can’t even remove the pile of old fridges that someone kindly plonked on the fields there a few months ago so they’d have no chance maintaining what looks like a pretty tired building. I hope the school just decide to move them soon as they’re an eye sore.

  3. Lewis White says:

    Thank you Peter for shedding light on the way education money is going into Academies and the pockets of Super-Heads and even worse, CEOs who pay themselves over £150,000 per term, sucking up the lion’s share of funding.

    What saddens me in general about schools today (apart from the abysmal treatment of teachers) is how readily a well-functioning and regarded school can so quickly decline and be dubbed a “failing school” and get closed down.

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