Mention schools or pensions at a dinner party and your companion will either make a lively comment or ask you to pass the red wine. If the guest happened to be Sean White, however, you might just sit back and listen, for he is something of an expert on both. Not long ago, Sean, a former teacher, used part of the joint self-invested personal pension he held with his teacher wife, Philomena, to buy a school.
Sean, who taught design, art and technology for 20 years, heard about the sale of a 150-pupil preparatory school in Chester after registering with a team of school transfer consultants, who use their backgrounds in education to find buyers for everything from small nursery to large public schools.
But the Whites, who already owned a care home, were reluctant to take on such an ambitious project. Based in Grade II-listed Victorian buildings, the school needed refurbishment and was 200 miles from their home in Pinner, Middlesex. "It was our bank manager who liked it and persuaded us to go ahead," says Sean.
After putting down a 25 per cent deposit (the maximum allowed from a pension fund), the couple formed a partnership and raised the funds with a Lloyds TSB loan. Their next task was to find a head teacher. "We formed a small selection panel with the previous owners and chose the school's deputy headmistress as she had the right background and qualifications," says Sean, who became the day-to-day proprietor while Philomena continued to commute to and from her west London school.
"I drew a clear dividing line, so that I ran the business side, kept up the income flow and looked after the maintenance and health and safety, which enabled the new head to have a free rein to handle the curriculum and manage the staff," says Sean. "It only took me a few weeks to discover the sheer volume of paperwork and legislation needed to run a school."
The Whites spent £260,000 on expanding and re-equipping the classrooms with state-of-the-art IT kit, replaced many of the stained-glass windows and put in new tennis courts. The couple needed just one more facility to complete the project: an art block that could be used during the school holidays by artists and members of the public.
So they approached Clive Smith, form Mortgages for Business, to refinance their loan. Smith, a former Natwest banker, drafted a business plan and approached a lender. Valuation is the key to £1m projects like this, so Smith recruited a specialist, Manchester-based firm. Three weeks later the report was delivered. After a fortnight, the Whites were able to draw down the new loan and start work on their £50,000 art block which is due to open in June.
Sean has a pointer for potential buyers: "Many owners of small preparatory schools who bought in the late-1960s are reaching retirement age, so buying a school is a growing market, particularly in rural areas where asking prices are more competitive. You may well be able to snap up a 90-pupil school for about £1 million."
The Whites have just had a valuation and been told their mixed prepper is worth £1.8m as an up-and-running business - compared to £1.24m when they first bought it. A second piece of good news is that the school has just been given an ecology award for energy conservation by Chester City Council; "not bad considering most Victorian buildings are known for being cold and draughty," adds Sean.