Old Palace parents threaten legal action over school closure

CROYDON IN CRISIS: With accusations of ‘sexist and misogynistic behaviour’ and even a claim of ‘fraud’ against the financially troubled property developers at the Whitgift Foundation, the fight to save the girls’ independent school has taken a new turn.

Plans for the enforced closure of a £20,000 per year girls’ private school have prompted an angry war of words between parents and the Whitgift Foundation.

One parents’ group has accused the Foundation of “fraud” over its actions in accepting a Year 7 intake in September without any hint that the school would close by 2025, and have warned that they will now resort of legal action in the battle to save the school.

Demonstration site: parents, carers, pupils and perhaps even some staff are expected to protest outside the school later this afternoon

A letter from the Old Palace Parents’ Alliance, an organisation which has sprung up in the last fortnight following the announcement of the school’s closure, says that parents are more “incensed” than ever by the latest comments from the Foundation’s chair of governors, Christopher Houlding.

Houlding is accused by the group of going “full-fat waffle” over the closure plans, and they say that his latest letter to parents is “embarrassing”.

OPPA is organising its latest demonstration against the closure outside the Old Palace school gates in Croydon Old Town this afternoon.

The Foundation is the large-scale property developer and landlord who operates three large independent schools in Croydon. It’s £1billion gamble on its prime piece of town centre real estate, the Whitgift Centre, has failed badly.

The Whitgift Foundation has seen the value of its property investment portfolio plummet by almost £11million between 2021 and 2022, which, according to their latest set of accounts “is due to the decline in value of commercial properties including the Whitgift Shopping Centre”.

Rents from the Foundation’s properties have also slumped, down by £4.4million from £5.6million in 2021 to £1.2million in 2022.

It is against this background of its own disastrous financial mismanagement that the Foundation abruptly pulled the plug on Old Palace School last month, announcing that it would close in 2025, as first reported by Inside Croydon.

Off-hand response: how the Whitgift Foundation was handling Old Palace parents’ enquiries last week

The angry reaction to Houlding’s letter to parents has since been matched by more parents’ fury, as the Foundation has been using the shocking death of 15-year-old pupil Elianne Andam as an excuse for not responding to urgent questions from parents seeking information about alternative schools for their daughters.

Last week, staff at the Foundation’s office on North End were sending out automatic resplies to all enquiries that had been sent to the special email address set up to handle enquiries about the closure of Old Palace.

“At the moment we are overwhelmed by the tragic events of this week and so your email will be responded to next week,” was the Foundation’s robotic autoresponse.

Many parents of girls at Old Palace’s prep and primary schools, as well as some in the senior school, have reluctantly decided to up-sticks immediately if they can find places at other suitable schools. With half-term fast approaching, time is short to make such arrangements.

They are overwhelmed?!” one angry parent told iC.

“They need to see the state of the girls who have lost a peer and are now competing against each other by sitting assessments for places in schools which are over-subscribed. Many of them at key points in their education.”

If Houlding’s letter, sent to parents last Tuesday, was intended to calm the mounting discontent among parents, it had exactly the opposite effect.

In their three-page rebuttal, the parents’ organisation wrote, “Your assertion that the numbers at OP are falling and therefore gives you a valid reason for closure is completely rejected.

Success story: how the Whitgift Foundation portrayed the educational success of Old Palace School in its annual review as recently as 2022

“The fact is that the levels of investment made in OP are significantly lower than those made in the boys’ schools.”

The parents claim that the Foundation has refused to share financial information about the level of capital investment made at Trinity and Whitgift schools, the Foundation’s boys’ schools, compared with what has been spent at Old Palace.

“You will not share this information because you are too afraid to show us the true picture of heavy under-investment in OP. The reality is that this is the fundamental reason why OP is not able to attract as many girls as the boys’ schools.

“Your further statement that you have tried incredibly hard to reverse or mitigate the decline of OP is factually incorrect. By simply commissioning studies and acquiring Croham Hurst [another girls’ private school] in 2008, you have achieved nothing…

“What exactly has the Foundation been doing for the last 15 years to attract future batches of girls to OP?

“The fact that OP girls are struggling to find places in independent schools is evidence of robust demand for quality education for girls…”.

The Foundation announced its closure plans on September 21, barely a week after they had publicised a 2023 open day for prospective new pupils at Old Palace. Existing parents are suspicious that there was never even the slightest attempt at a consultation over the future of their daughters’ school.

“As a Foundation, given that you run three schools and other assets, you are deemed to be a public body and, therefore, are subject to public body processes and regulations.

“The fact that there was no consultation is a clear dereliction of your duties. The fact that you offered admissions to the incoming Year 7 girls without giving the parents even a hint of a potential closure is morally unconscionable and amounts to fraud.

“The fact that the school was making losses every year and, in your view, had no future was evident to the Foundation for years. Yet, you chose to hide it from all parents. You have not only defrauded the current Year 7 parents, but also all the other parents who put their trust and faith in you despite you and the Foundation knowing fully well that you were going to close the school down.

“If you think having a pre-announcement consultation was going to make the situation messier, sadly, your years of experience in the education sector has taught you and the other Governors very little.

“Taking the parents with you would have been the right and honourable thing to do – unfortunately, that does not appear to be the John Whitgift Foundation’s way.”

The parents have asked for all financial statements for Old Palace since 2008 (the Foundation’s accounts, as lodged with the Charity Commission, do not break down to show the different figures for Whitgift, Trinity and Old Palace).

“Given how proud you are of the fact that the boys’ schools are completely full, and also profitable, we can understand your reluctance to think about a merger. To bask in the glory of the success of the boys’ schools while the girl’s school crumbles is indicative of your sexist and misogynistic behaviour that we have come to expect from you and the Governors.”

Legal threat: the three-page letter from OPPA makes a range of angry demands of the Whitgift Foundation

Some sources suggest that discussions are at an advanced stage for the 1,048-pupil Trinity School, in Shirley Park, which already has girls in its Sixth Form, to go co-educational from 11-year-olds upwards.

Houlding’s letter last week did make reference to the Foundation’s commitment to girls’ education, adding that “any plans will take some time to develop”.

Allowing girls to join Trinity in Year 7 in September 2025 could be an option, although it would only go part way to addressing the obvious and immediate concerns of Old Palace parents.

Accusing Houlding of “complete obfuscation of reality” and “dishonesty”, in their letter, the parents repeat their calls for an urgent meeting.

“The fact is that the Foundation has a duty of care to the girls and has a social commitment to educate them. The fact is also that if you had cared to have an open discussion with parents and alumnae, we would have collectively found creative solutions.

“Your intention was never to try hard enough for the girls’ school…

“The fact that you and the Governors have made a dog’s breakfast of the Foundation’s investment portfolio gives us little faith in your abilities to manage and grow the Foundation’s asset base.” The parents call the £1billion bungled gamble over the Whitgift Centre redevelopment as a “debacle”.

“We have given you the opportunity, repeatedly, to work with us in a collegiate manner and without prejudice. Yet you have chosen to completely ignore our requests.

“We shall now formally proceed to legal action.

“This is about our girls’ future and we will do everything in our power to make sure we protect their interests.”

Read more: Whitgift Foundation decides to close Old Palace School in 2025
Read more: Falling rolls and rising fees: how Old Palace got squeezed
Read more: Ghost haunts ancient palace where Good Queen Bess slept

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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6 Responses to Old Palace parents threaten legal action over school closure

  1. Aaron Strutt says:

    I am grateful to Inside Croydon for following this sorry story and for highlighting what an utter disgrace the foundation is. I think most people with any sort of knowledge of them would appreciate they had made a massive mess of their finances and they are punishing the girls of Croyon as a result. They should be thoroughly ashamed of the ongoing mess they have created and what they are doing to Croydon.
    I would have liked our local MPs to have done more to support the parents and challenge Whitgift ‘foundation.’
    More kids are moving out of the school now and many more will be gone after the half-term break. This gives Whitgift even more ammunition to say the school isn’t viable.

    • John B says:

      Another take is that Old Palace is the first of the Whitgift schools to close. Looking at the last accounts, the Whitgift Foundation made a loss of £12m in 2021/2. If Labour go through with its promise to remove tax breaks for private schools, surely it’s a question of time before Whitgift closes? These kinds of schools tend to be over-reliant on substantial fees generated by overseas students.

      • Aaron Strutt says:

        Time will tell. Nothing takes away from the shambles this process is and how cowardly the bosses of the Whitgift ‘Foundation’ are to avoid parents. I bet if their girls were at Old Palace the school would not be closing.

  2. Anthony Miller says:

    Could be worse… when Commonweal Lodge closed in 2010 due to continual financial problems like there being literally no money left they simply flogged off the buildings during the summer and sent parents a letter near the end of the summer holidays along the lines of “We’re closing now. Toodle pip!”.

    Okay it was a bit longer than that but I believe that was the gist of it…*

    At least the Whitgift Foundation still have enough in the kitty to have some kind of wind down … although I expect the staff will leave as fast as the pupils now ….

    The question I would be asking is what happens to the site?

    * there was a Charity Commission investigation but I believe it did conclude they genuinely ran out of readies and the only way to settle the debts was flog the buildings. May be wrong… long ago …

    • Ian Kierans says:

      The OP location would generate more money from development than the other schools with less loss. But it has Grade 1 listed status.
      2025 does mean that it will close before a Mayoral and council election.
      Any development would require Council permission and consent before demolitian and re-developing – for instance a skyscraper style building on the grounds.
      It will be interesting to read about the court action and what that throws up.

      One thing is clear – anyone attempting to build or develop there will have an uphill battle now and there will be a planatery sized magnifying glass looking at any and all actions by the planning department and anyone involved in granting any kind of planning permissions.
      This Borough is tired of the covert nature and opaque processes of this Councils activities especially with such losses and rate increases.

      Old Palace families will have a lot more support that even they realise.

      • Anthony Miller says:

        I doubt the school will take till 2025 to close. Even if the Whitgift Foundation had genuine intentions to keep it open till then they can’t force the staff to stay to the bitter end when they’re literally made redundant and there will come a point at which there aren’t enough staff to keep it operationally functional…unless they’re going to draft in labour from their other institutions?

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