'Transfer fees' wheeze cuts old school ties

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The Independent Online
REGISTERED charities are not supposed to become embroiled in controversy - least of all when their chief function is to infuse knowledge and good manners into the juvenile sons of the rich and aristocratic. But yesterday, as Hawtreys preparatory school for boys closed its doors forever, it was unable to contain a heated row with parents and masters.

'The atmosphere is positively malodorous,' observed Lord Cardigan, a former pupil and landlord of Hawtreys, after listening to prize-day speeches inside the Palladian mansion in Wiltshire. Meanwhile, in the grounds, furious teachers erected their own marquee and boycotted the headmaster's and governors' lunch.

The row is over the manner in which Hawtreys is to be merged with another famous prep school, Cheam, outside Newbury in Berkshire, where Prince Philip and Prince Charles were taught. As a result of the merger the headmaster of Hawtreys, Graham Fenner, may stand to gain more than pounds 50,000 in a 'consultancy' deal privately negotiated with Cheam. It includes pounds 500 for each of the 46 boys who will transfer from Hawtreys.

Many of Mr Fenner's staff - many of whom are losing their jobs - are deeply unhappy. Some parents are said to be furious. Outside 'the leavers' tent', a teacher said that 'for a registered charity you won't find a lot of charitable conduct here'.

It ought to have been a decorous occasion. Instead, one could, like Lord Cardigan, smell anger in the air. Ruffled teachers and disenchanted parents dominated the school's final day in Savernake Forest, a few miles from Marlborough. Others couldn't bring themselves to turn up, believing the headmaster and the governing body had failed to act in the best traditions of an establishment where dukes (Beaufort and Somerset, for example), a prime minister (Baldwin) and a field marshal (Alexander) once did their prep.

Under the influence of champagne and claret, tongues loosened. A master said: 'Between you and me, the parents don't like Fenner because he's not one of us.'

On the manner by which Mr Fenner will benefit from the transfer, another master said: 'The Charity Commissioners may be interested in a situation like this and pressure for an inquiry is likely to come from some of the parents.'

Mr Fenner's private deal was arranged through Hawtreys' solicitors, Wilsons of Salisbury. Anthony Edwards, a partner in the firm and one of the school governors, said that any suggestion that there might be a conflict of interest 'would be wrong'.

Some are cautious in discussing Mr Fenner. Lady Tryon, wife of Baron Tryon of Durnford, said her first son had had a 'happy, wonderful' time at Hawtreys under the previous headmaster, but, under Mr Fenner, her second son was less happy.

The boys yesterday were passing among themselves a poem written by one of them: 'There was once a headmaster called Fenner / who sold our school for a tenner. / The staff worked all day, / but still Graham gets more pay. . . .'

Four months ago, it seemed that the teachers would not suffer undue financial hardship. On 10 March Sir Neville Bowman-Shaw, chairman of the governing body, wrote to staff formally announcing the 'amalgamation' and that the new school would be called Cheam Hawtreys. There would not be jobs for everyone, he warned; unlucky teachers would receive the legal minimum of redundancy, 'and it is our hope that possibly, somehow, we may be able to enhance these payments to you'.

Within a month, however, the common room was restless and parents were worried by 'rumours' of payments to Mr Fenner. Both Sir Neville and the vice-chairman of the governors, Hugh Gunn, attempted to dispel the rumours. On 8 May, Mr Gunn wrote to the parents: 'On the subject of Graham Fenner, I feel there is a good deal more heat than light. . . . I can assure you that there is absolutely no element of ex gratia payment to Graham.' Mr Gunn said he had originally been involved with Mr Fenner's 'arrangements' with Cheam, but 'has been excluded from the discussions latterly'.

Next day, Sir Neville wrote to parents denying that anything was wrong. He said that the transfer was proceeding 'very well' andinvited parents to choose artefacts and memorabilia they would like transferred to Cheam Hawtreys. These were piled high at the front door in crates yesterday. Mr Fenner, meanwhile, prepared to depart for a new job in France.

(Photograph omitted)

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