Old Palace head announced retirement days before new term

Parents are discussing potential legal and sex discrimination challenges to Whitgift Foundation’s school closure plans, reports our education correspondent, GENE BRODIE

Retirement plan: Jane Burton will be standing down as Old Palace head in 2024

Pupils at Old Palace and their parents were told just two days before the start of the new term that Jane Burton, headteacher of the £20,000 per year girls’ private school, is to retire at the end of the school year, next July.

The news came as something of a surprise, as Burton has been head at Old Palace only since 2019, although it was not as big a shock as the announcement last Thursday, reported exclusively by Inside Croydon, that the school will be forced to close in 2025.

The Whitgift Foundation, the Croydon property business which operates Old Palace and two other large independent schools in the borough, has confirmed Burton’s retirement plan, without offering any statement regarding her contribution to the school or who might be expected to replace her for what could be Old Palace’s final year.

At the time of her appointment, just four years ago, the Foundation said, “With Croydon set for imminent redevelopment and regeneration, this is an immensely exciting time in the history and future of the school.”

But this week, the Foundation said that the reasons for closure were that “the school has been struggling financially for many years”.

On display: at Whitgift boys’ school, another part of the Foundation, they boast peacocks, flamingos and a menagerie

Any analysis of the Foundation’s financial accounts, and the nose-dive in their income, will link the demise of the 134-year-old school to the £1billion gamble with Westfield and the Foundation’s property portfolio, centred on the Whitgift Centre shopping mall, which remains stubbornly untouched a dozen years after a promised redevelopment.

Old Palace, which runs a prep and primary on Melville Avenue as well as their 80-pupil entry senior school on a historic site in Croydon Old Town, has seen its pupil numbers decline rapidly in the three years since the covid pandemic, from 900 to 600 this year.

According to sources at the school, there has also been a significant churn of staff under 58-year-old Burton’s headship.

More than a dozen teachers left Old Palace last year. “We figured there could have been difficulty at the school under her leadership,” according to one source, “and perhaps the governors were making Mrs Burton take the fall.

“We now realise she is leaving because the school is closing.”

Whether the closure did accelerate the head’s retirement planning, it seems clear that the decision-making of the Court of Governors was not communicated to senior figures at the school until very late: plans to stage an open day at the school this Saturday, September 30, were well advanced, with banners up outside the school gates on Church Road. Even the Foundation was publicising the Old School open day as recently as September 14 – just seven days before they announced the school’s closure.

The school is now not taking any new pupils.

Under a cloud: part of the senior school estate, scattered around Old Town

The majority of the senior school’s teachers had only been told of the closure plan at 4pm last Thursday, in a somewhat abrupt, 10-minute staff meeting. “Cold” and “Brief” were two of the kinder descriptions of the meeting that have been relayed to Inside Croydon.

“We have seen several teachers crying around school, and many who have been on the brink of tears but just held it together,” according to one pupil.

One thing which fee-paying schools can expect is that the parents of their pupils will often been well-trained professionals, including business directors, surgeons and… even lawyers. Mention of the European Convention on Human Rights and sexual discrimination has already been raised among disgruntled parents, many of whom sent their child to Old Palace when they might have chosen another school that was not about to close midway through their daughters’ educational career.

“Several parents who are lawyers say the Whitgift Foundation is neglecting their duty as a religious charity to educate girls as well as boys.”

As another former pupil pointed out in the disparity of treatment between poor relations Old Palace and the Whitgift boys’ school: “Whitgift still has a menagerie of exotic animals and birds and the staff to run it!

“There were four classrooms based in Portakabins for the entireity of my time at the school. You’d never see that at Whitgift or Trinity.”

A parent of a primary-aged girl who attends the school at Melville Avenue told Inside Croydon: “We are all devastated. There is a strong appetite among the parents to fight the decision to close the school. We feel that among the parents and alumni we must have the skill set to fight this.

“What a terrible blow to Croydon and girls’ education if this closure goes ahead.

“My daughter told me that the girls were marching around the playground, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, chanting ‘Save Our School!’”

Foundation chief: CEO Martin Corney

Several bishops have also been alerted to the issue, according to sources. The Whitgift Foundation, which was founded by an Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, has several governor appointments made by the current Archbishop.

And according to one sixth former, the announcement has “been extremely unfair on teachers”, with 13 new to the staff this month, who now most likely will be looking for more secure employment elsewhere in 2025, if not before.

Martin Corney has been the CEO of the Whitgift Foundation for 20 years, and is believed to be among the three employees who are paid a salary of more than £190,000 per year. One of these is listed as being on more than £230,000 a year.

Over the past decade, Corney has played a significant part in the negotiations over the redevelopment of the Foundation’s town centre properties.

He is currently on an indefinite period of long-term sick leave.

In a statement issued to Inside Croydon in Corney’s absence, the Foundation said that it has “had a challenging few years due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, increased operating costs on its care services and schools, and declining returns from its property portfolio in Croydon”.

The Foundation said: “Looking ahead, it is vital that all the Foundation’s operations return to a position of breaking even.

“The income from the Foundation’s investment portfolio has helped to support Old Palace School, which has struggled financially for many years. Sadly, the growth in expense for necessary capital investment projects and anticipated demographic changes have made the sustainability of the school beyond the short term impossible.

“Whitgift School and Trinity School are in a much stronger financial position than Old Palace, and places at both schools remain in high demand. Parents, pupils and staff at these schools should therefore feel very confident about their future.” Which is nice… for the boys.

Read more: Whitgift Foundation decides to close Old Palace School in 2025
Read more: Old Palace closure brought on by shaky Foundation finances
Read more: Falling rolls and rising fees: how Old Palace got squeezed

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14 Responses to Old Palace head announced retirement days before new term

  1. Ian Kierans says:

    So what exactly is the problem with making Whitgift or Trinity co-educational?

    It is not as if the girls are not used to temporary pre-fabs is it?

    If it is the matter of waiting lists and its location, state that.
    If it is not being run efficiently, then state that.
    If it is the costs of the buildings upkeep, state that.

    The Whitgift Foundation is facing a credibility issues at this stage.

    It is a stretch to understand how a business model formula that runs three schools only has one failing to make ends meet and that happens to be the girls.

    Is Old Palace no longer competitive in the girls’ education provision? How come?

    I go back to my first comment the only differences between the three is Location and Gender

    So unless there was mismanagement, a failure to apply a proven and effective business model it really comes down to parents not wanting to send their girls to that location.

    Could that be down to the impact of cuts and the problems blighting that area from Mr Perry’s perfecly legal acts of administrative vandalism to the borough?

    • Thomas Windsor says:

      Other very good all girls schools are available nearby. They have a unique selling point in they are not in the centre of Croydon.

      • Anthony Miller says:

        The fact the other two Whitgift schools have girls in the 6th form suggests there’s probably a long term plan to go fully co-ed with at least one of them … given the geography Whitgift would be possible for them to take over the old site… it’s not over till the 3 month consultation period… mind you once you stop taking in new pupils and public trust evaporates…

        It would be a shame for such a historical site to become retail or housing … the Girls’ Day School Trust schools though very well built are a bit boring architecturally. Then again if the Swan and Sugar loaf can become a Tesco maybe there’s room for a Sainsbury’s in Queen Elizabeth’s long gallery…

  2. derekthrower says:

    CEO is off on long term sick. Headteacher was planning to retire anyway. Makes you wonder how this Organisation is making decisions. The rushed headless chicken behaviour of last Thursday is showing that the Whitgift Foundation is in a desperate state and from the seemingly invincible hold it has had over the direction of Croydon in the last few decades looks vulnerable to more unexpected turns of events.

  3. derekthrower says:

    You said she had announced her intention two days before the start of the new term.

  4. Croydon resident says:

    This has come about either through terrible mismanagement by the Whitgift Foundation or (and I’m beginning to think this is the case) a plan to allow Old Palace to fail so that they could close it down (or perhaps both).
    The merger with Croham Hurst in 2008 was the start of serious problems. At the time, numbers at OPS (Prep & Senior all on one site) were just 45 pupils below what the WF considered ‘optimum’. Croham Hurst was 150 below. The plan to utilise the two sites and expand numbers in Prep by 150 and Seniors by at least 45 was ambitious (and that was assuming everyone would stay). WF were advised that the proposals were flawed by staff and parents at both schools….but they ‘knew better’.
    The choice of Head at the time of merger was another poor decision and numbers went into decline. More and more money was being spent to keep the school afloat.
    Future Heads had their work cut out to try and rebuild after this but it was a losing battle. Then WF allowed Trinity to take girls in the 6th form – suddenly a new rival appeared – from within the same Foundation! Some of the most able students left OPS for 6th form thanks to this.
    There are 600 pupils currently at OPS – at the time of the merger, the optimum number for Croham Site was 550. Therefore, there are already more than enough students to fill that site. And moving the school away from the declining town centre (brought on in part by the failed WF/Westfield deal…which, in addition, has wiped out bursary income) would surely be a more attractive prospect for prospective parents. With careful marketing, it could surely be a success – after all, transport links are good and other local independent schools are full or close to (as the poor students desperately looking for alternative schools are currently finding). It might have resulted in some downsizing and redundancies but at least the school would have survived and the WF could continue to suggest they were supporting ‘young people’ in croydon…..not just boys.
    But it would seem that the WF are not interested in trying to save the school. They’re allowing it to fail to ensure the future success of the two boys’ schools. Perhaps their intention for many years?

  5. Anthony Miller says:

    I was doing some back of the fag packet maths. At the current rate of expenditure the foundation reserves will be drained in about 7 years. But if the Hammerton Whitgift Centre plan was to magically happen overnight there’d be no rental income from the Whitgift for the next 3 to 5 years because they’ll be demolishing it … that means there’s no financial cushion to absorb such economic shocks.

    Of course the Whitgift Centre was originally the site of Whitgift school. Thinking outside the box …why don’t they flog off the Old Palace site and move back into the Whitgift Centre. Most of it is vacant? Or perhaps more sensibly flog off the Whitgift Centre… they’re not generating much money out of it…

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