Our education correspondent, GENE BRODIE, examines the likely reasons and consequences of yesterday’s announcement of the decision to close one of Croydon’s oldest and best-known girls’ schools
For the 80 or so 11-year-old girls who started their secondary school careers just a fortnight ago, most of them probably full of enthusiasm and eager anticipation for the years ahead, the announcement yesterday that all of that will be taken away from them because Old Palace School is to close must have come as a bitter blow.
For their parents, and the parents of those girls now in Year 8, the news may well be more than just disappointing, but also prompting some anger, that they had entrusted their daughter’s precious education to Old Palace and the Whitgift Foundation, yet now face uncertainty and turmoil, as they have to find another path for their child towards their public examinations.
In a letter to parents and carers yesterday, Christopher Houlding, the chair of the Whitgift Foundation, said he was “desperately sorry”.
Which is unlikely to be much consolation for OP parents when they are seeking to find a place at another suitable school with any spare places in the next couple of years for their displaced daughters. Some suggest there could be a mass exodus after summer term 2024, with only those with GCSE or A Level courses to complete staying on for the final year at Old Palace.
In his letter, Houlding wrote, “We ourselves are distraught at the thought of closing a school that was founded 134 years ago and which has enjoyed a finely deserved reputation for excellence in girls’ education ever since.
“We have done everything we can to avoid this outcome, but we have been left with no viable alternative.”
Houlding blamed financial troubles at the schools over several years. Unmentioned was the £1billion property gamble that the Foundation itself took nearly 12 years ago with its major investment, the Whitgift Centre shopping mall, and a deal with Westfield which has failed to deliver the promised revenues.
Old Palace has experienced funding problems before – it was largely the reason that the former girls’ grammar school decided to join the Whitgift Foundation in 1993.
Since then there has been a degree of expansion, taking over Croham Hurst School in 2008, its site – with its own playing fields – now used for OP’s nursery and prep school.
Given the listed, protected status of many of the senior school’s historic buildings in Old Town, the Melville Avenue site in South Croydon, not far from Lloyd Park, appears to be an obvious development possibility to offer aid to the Foundation’s stricken finances. But then the Whitgift Foundation might not be in this hole had they not thrown their lot in with developers before …
Many of the immediate reactions to the news of the closure of Old Palace posed the very reasonable question: why is the Whitgift Foundation closing the girls’ school, while keeping Trinity and Whitgift (mainly boys) schools open.
This might simply be a numbers game: Trinity and Whitgift have been part of the fabric of Croydon life, and of the Foundation, for centuries. Both charge considerably more in fees than Old Palace (25% more in the case of Whitgift), and both have many more pupils.
There are less pupils to go round as a whole. There have been two state secondary schools in Croydon that have closed in the last three years because of unsustainably falling rolls – after the council and DfE built new schools at the behest of academy chains, delivering significant over-capacity of pupil places in the borough.
But demand for places at state selective schools in neighbouring boroughs, such as at Wilson’s and Wallington Girls’ in Sutton, remains eye-wateringly high, with as many as eight applications for every available (free) place. The possibility of a bursary from the Whitgift Foundation is never guaranteed.
The independent school sector as a whole has also been hard hit by covid and then by the cost-of-living crisis. Few families can afford the £20,000 per year fees, per child, that Old Palace requires. And those that can may well have been looking elsewhere for their daughters’ education, with James Allen’s Girls in Dulwich, Croydon High and Royal Russell providing different offers to OP.
According to a senior source working in the education sector in south London, “It will be interesting to see where the pupils go. There are places available in Croydon secondaries, but unlikely to be in the schools the Old Palace parents might choose.
“The Foundation might try to broker deals with other independents nearby, though places are thin on the ground for girls.”
Whatever the causes, Old Palace has lost pupils, a lot of pupils, very quickly. According to their own figures, their school roll was around 900 – across nursery, primary, senior school and Sixth Form – as recently as 2019.
This week, school sources suggest numbers are down to 600.
Over the same period, the school’s annual fees (for secondary pupils) have risen by about one-third, from £15,000 in 2019.
Sources suggest that there has also been a series of unspecified “management issues” at the Melville Avenue site.
Yet this raises further questions: why not simply shed the primary school, and sell its site, to keep the secondary school going in Old Town?
“The Whitgift Foundation’s withdrawal from girls’ education, with the exception of some Sixth Formers at Trinity and Whitgift, is a great betrayal,” according to one parent.
That is certainly the view of one Old Palace Year 13 pupil who contacted Inside Croydon today.
“The Whitgift Foundation has treated us as a lesser school for as long as we have been a part of it,” they said, asking (for obvious reasons) not to be named.
“We have had enough of the injustice. They have neglected their duty as a religious charity of honouring gender education equality.
“Our school is unique in that it truly represents the diversity of Croydon – racial, economic, religious. It has given the opportunity of good education for young girls who may not be able to afford it normally.”
Some pupils and their parents have already voiced the intention to challenge the Whitgift Foundation’s decision, or maybe seek ways of branching out and taking over the running of the school after August 2025.
There’s also the school’s staff to consider. The Foundation’s announcement yesterday mentioned a “consultation”, but as the matter appears to be a foregone conclusion, so the redundancy settlements will not come cheaply.
So as “exit strategies” go, the Whitgift Foundation’s decision to close Old Palace is looking as well-managed and controlled as the American evacuation from Saigon.
Read more: Whitgift Foundation decides to close Old Palace School in 2025
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