CROYDON IN CRISIS: Fewer than 300 girls returned to Old Palace after half-term, as the charitable foundation that runs the school offered cash inducements to their parents to withdraw their daughters promptly.
EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Around half of the 600 or so girls who started September as pupils at Old Palace have been taken out of the school since the Whitgift Foundation announced its closure, Inside Croydon can reveal.
And this massive and hurried exodus of pupils from the doomed school was precipitated by the governing charity itself.
Many parents and carers who took the prompt decision to find a more settled educational environment for their daughters will have done so because of what amounts to bribes, in some cases of more than £7,000 per child, offered by the Foundation to encourage them to leave.
Inside Croydon has obtained a copy of the letter, from a senior official at the Foundation, which offered to waive all fees due at the £20,000 per year private school for those families whose daughters were removed from Old Palace by the autumn half-term last month.
Before the pandemic, Old Palace had around 900 pupils across its two sites, the senior school in Old Town and the nursery and prep at Melville Avenue in South Croydon.
Sources at the school suggest that the total roll at the beginning of this school year – before the decision to close the school was announced – was around 600. They estimate that about 100 of those had already left by the time the half-term break began last month. When the girls returned a fortnight ago, there were fewer than 300 pupils left at the doomed school.
The Whitgift Foundation did not deny that Old Palace’s roll had fallen to 280 pupils when asked this week by Inside Croydon.
This website has obtained a copy of the letter, from the Foundation’s chief finance officer, Michael Webb, which was sent on September 25 – the Monday following the devastating announcement that the school would be closing in July 2025.
“Once you have an offer from another school please let us know which school, which year group and the start date… to trigger the process of settling the financial obligations,” Webb said in his letter.
The letter made a blunt offer: “If you withdraw your daughter before the end of this half-term we will not charge any fees for this term.
“If your daughter is still in school after this date fee payments will be as usual and withdrawal calculations will be made as soon as you accept a place at a new school.
“If you are in receipt of a bursary award or any scholarship or Head’s award you will have already received a letter detailing how the Foundation will seek to support you…”.
Webb’s letter also confirmed that every girl at the school is being offered a payment of £500 “towards new school costs”.
In total, it is estimated that the fees waiver and other incentives to get parents to remove their girls from the school could have cost the Foundation charity in the region of £1.5million in the last two months.
And the costs will hit the Foundation’s income stream in coming months, too, with many fewer fee-paying pupils still attending the school.
Questions are being asked whether this is appropriate use of a charity’s funds.
As one parent told Inside Croydon, “the Foundation has financially incentivised as many girls as possible to leave the school”.
Of those who have stayed on, many of them are girls in Years 11 or 13, the GCSE and A level exams years. Those parents who have not yet been able to find alternative schooling for their daughters – there are few if any vacant places available at the better schools in the area – are feeling even more aggrieved with the Whitgift Foundation now they are being forced to pay thousands of pounds each term for a much-reduced educational experience.
“Since the announcement to close the school, there has been no direct discussion between the Foundation and parents,” the source said.
“For those pupils who are staying, or are forced to stay, there has been no discussion or communication as to how the Foundation plans to maintain the standard of education over the two years that they have committed to keep the school open.
“This behaviour by the Foundation, encouraging an immediate free-for-all for the exit while remaining silent on how they intend to manage an orderly closure, is incredibly distressing for parents whose girls remain at the school.
“We had placed our trust in the John Whitgift Foundation to educate and provide stability for our daughters for this crucial time in their lives and now feel completely betrayed.”
That sense of betrayal is prompting some parents, and teachers, to consider appealling to the Archbishop of Canterbury, or reporting the Whitgift Foundation’s conduct to the official watchdog, the Charity Commission, for investigation.
Archbishop Justin Welby was responsible for appointing seven of the 11 members of the Foundation’s “Court of Governors”, the committee that made the call to close the 134-year-old school. When announcing its decision, the Foundation claimed that there was “no viable alternative” as “the school has been struggling financially for many years”.
The Foundation has refused to release the agenda for that key meeting held on September 20, and will not say who was in attendance at the meeting, a spokesperson saying only, “I can confirm that all the Court of Governors support the decision on the potential closure of Old Palace School.”
But sources at the school have suggested that not all governors were able to attend the meeting and some may not have been aware that closure of the school was even on the agenda.
Just days before the closure was announced, the Foundation was still promoting an open day to recruit pupils to start in September next year.
Over the course of the summer break, the school also made significant investment in overhauling its IT system and re-equipping all members of staff.
And last year the Foundation took out a £70million loan to build a new school on the Melville Avenue site.
It is the Whitgift Foundation which in 2012 entered into an agreement with Westfield to redevelop its major property interest, the Whitgift Centre shopping mall and adjoining offices. That has turned out to be a £1billion property gamble gone wrong.
The Foundation’s accounts – covering all three of its fee-paying schools, a care home and almshouses, as well as its various property interests – reveal that it is haemorrhaging money: losing £40million from its unrestricted funds between 2018 and 2022, while its rental income has slumped from £5.6million in 2021 to £1.2million in 2022.
This, the accounts state, “is due to the decline in value of commercial properties including the Whitgift Shopping Centre.”
Last month, Westfield’s Chief Operating Officer, Scott Parsons, announced that their third version of a “masterplan” won’t be ready until 2025 – 18 months later than promised – and that the redevelopment work in Croydon town centre could take until the 11-year-olds who started at Old Palace this autumn are in their late 20s.
A Foundation document circulated to staff just before half-term suggests that the fate of the school was deliberately concealed by the governors in order to try not to scare off prospective pupils.
“Any prior suggestion that the school faced an uncertain future would have led to an immediate loss of confidence and precipitated the very thing that the Foundation were trying to avoid,” the Foundation admitted to staff. Yet within a few weeks, the Foundation was offering thousands of pounds to parents to take their daughters to other schools.
This week, the Foundation dismissed some suggestions that, given the large number of pupils that have already left, and with a exodus of teaching staff expected soon, they might even close the school at the end of this school year, in July 2024. “Both the Prep and Senior schools will remain open until the end of the 2024-2025 academic year,” the Foundation spokesperson said.
And commenting on the high number of girls who have already quit Old Palace, the Foundation said, “Some parents have chosen to move their daughters to other schools, we remain fully committed to providing a high-quality education to all our pupils.”
Maybe Archbishop Welby has some helpful texts he can suggest on the topic of the bearing of false witness?
- Click here for Inside Croydon’s unmatched, in-depth 13-year archive of the calamity surrounding the aborted redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre
Read more: Old Palace parents threaten legal action over school closure
Read more: Foundation abandoned new school plan after taking £70m loan
Read more: Hammer blow for Whitgift Centre with new delay to masterplan
Read more: Falling rolls and rising fees: how Old Palace got squeezed
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