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