Credit crisis hits private schools

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The Independent Online

The credit crunch has forced at least five fee-paying schools to close, as increasing numbers of parents struggle to afford the fees.

Three private prep schools have followed two prestigious girls' senior schools and shut down after falling pupil numbers pushed them into financial difficulties, making them the sector's first victims of the credit crisis.

Children at Westbrook House Preparatory School in Kent were left without places for September when the school announced its closure at the end of term. The school, funded by a Kent businessman, Roger de Haan, who made his fortune with the Saga group of companies, said a shortage of pupils and financial problems had caused the closure.

Green Hill School in Evesham, Worcestershire, was forced to close last month because of falling pupil numbers, after more than 100 years. The third prep school was St Peter's school in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, a family-owned school charging up to £2,600 a term, similarly forced to close after 43 years, leaving only its nursery department open.

This follows news that Wentworth College, a private secondary school in Bournemouth, has gone into administration after its bank suddenly called in a £750,000 loan.

Wispers School in Haslemere, Surrey, another senior school, will likewise not reopen after the summer holidays, blaming the economic downturn and a drop in demand for all-girls education. Both schools were members of the Girls' School Association, which represents the UK's top female-only schools.

Experts warned that the closures were likely to be the first of many as the economic downturn forces families to reconsider whether they can afford to educate their children privately.

Small prep schools are set to be worst hit, as they are will be most badly affected if just two or three of their children are withdrawn.

But Jonathan Cook, general secretary of the Independent Schools Bursars Association, argued that it is too early for the economic downturn to have hit schools and that a small number of schools, particularly small ones, are anyway forced to close every year.

"I think it's too early to say that this is the recession biting. It is really sad for all those involved, but there are more likely to be local factors at play, such as local demographics or competition. I think that at the moment all schools are keeping a watchful eye on the future."

Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools who now chairs the Cognita chain of private schools, said: "It is certainly true that the credit crisis and a possible looming recession is making some people think very carefully about whether they can afford private education.

"But the evidence from the last recession in the early 1990s is that pupil numbers in independent schools did hold up because parents will make all kinds of sacrifices rather than pull their children out of school. But there will be some schools that cannot weather the storm."

The all-girls Wentworth College, which had 144 pupils and was founded in 1871, had attempted to reverse its declining pupil numbers by going co-educational from September, and had borrowed £750,000 to build sports facilities. However, only 15 boys are believed to have signed up and the bank demanded repayment of the loan.

The 180-pupil school, which charged £10,500 a year for day pupils and £17,000 for boarders, was forced to call in the receivers, who are attempting to sell it. The other all-girls school school, Wispers, charged up to £21,000 a year for boarders and had a strong academic reputation. John Parker, president of its trustees, said its closure was due to "the difficulties facing small schools in budgeting for ever increasing costs."

Vicky Tuck, the principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College and president of the Girls' School Association, insisted that the closure of the two GSA schools were "isolated cases". However, Hugh Stevens, head of St Peter's in West Sussex, in a statement on his school's closure, blamed government policy for eroding independence but also said the the economy had "of course played a part, with many of our parents affected".

'We've been treated disgracefully' - Hannah Zaidi, 33, mother of three

Mother-of-three Hannah Zaidi, 33, was horrified when her children's private school, Westbrook House Preparatory School in Folkestone, Kent, shut down only a month after she had taken her daughter away from a successful village primary to join her brother – who had enrolled at Westbrook a couple of months earlier. The state primary, three minutes walk from their home, is now full and Marcus, 10, and Mia, eight, now face a 28-mile round trip daily to another school. "We have been treated disgracefully," Ms Zaidi said. "It has been very upsetting for everyone. My children have got to settle into a second new school this year, my son has to take his 11-plus in a strange environment surrounded by children he doesn't know, and I spent £200 on a uniform for my daughter that she wore for only a month. I feel that I was persuaded to remove my daughter from a perfectly good school, where she was very happy, at a time when Westbrook House must have known something was wrong." Mia started attending the £2,600-a-term school in June.