March 22, 2013 6:18 pm

Private to free school

Hard economic times have seen ‘independent’ school rolls dwindle, leading some to abandon fees and accept state funding
Grindon Hall, Sunderland©Charlie Bibby

Grindon Hall, Sunderland

How far will parents go to try to reserve a place for their child at a private school which is about to stop charging fees and offer free education? Chris Gray, principal of Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland, knows the answer; it’s an envelope with about £1,000 in it – promptly declined and returned to the parent.

His experience is not unique. At The King’s School, Tynemouth, which is poised to follow Grindon Hall in converting from fee-paying private school to state funded, headmaster Ed Wesson was offered payment by a parent who wanted to pre-book a place ahead of the queue for September admission. “Illegal and probably corrupt,” was Wesson’s view. He refused.

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Virtually overnight, these two headmasters have gone from anxiously watching pupil numbers tumble to managing bulging waiting lists from the moment removal of fees was suggested.

Some parents have even scraped together one year’s fees to move their child into the schools, banking on a speedy switch to state status. Their logic is that any new admissions rules based on residential catchment will not apply to existing pupils, nor probably to siblings.

“A lot of parents said, ‘I’m going to take a gamble and pay fees for a year,’” says Gray, who gained 30 pupils like this. King’s had a similar experience: “I suspect parents want a high-quality independent education they don’t have to pay for,” observes Wesson.

Grindon Hall and King’s, located 10 miles apart in northeast England, illustrate a trend. Both have seized on government education reforms to ensure their future by abandoning fees and becoming state supported. Other private schools have done the same, too; more will.

Grindon Hall, an emphatically Christian school for four- to 18-year-olds, was founded 25 years ago. Its base is a former shipyard owner’s mansion on the edge of Sunderland’s highly deprived Pennywell estate. It became a free school in September, making it state funded but not under local authority control. Its catchment now includes an area which counts among England’s most deprived 5 per cent. Suddenly, its pupils come from financially rich and poor backgrounds.

Ed Wesson, headmaster at The King’s School, Tynemouth©Charlie Bibby

Ed Wesson, headmaster at The King’s School, Tynemouth

In more affluent Tynemouth, The King’s School, founded in 1860, and housed in elegant historic buildings, is part of the Woodard Corporation. Last year the school shocked parents, and the local education authority, by announcing a proposal to merge with the nearby state Priory Primary and become a four-to-18 academy, Kings Priory, in September 2013. It awaits approval from the Department for Education.

Grindon Hall was not, says Gray, “a posh private school”. A typical parent might own a minibus taxi business depending on public sector work which, in the northeast, is contracting sharply as cuts bite. The school’s roll dropped from 342 in 2006 to 241 in 2011; applications dwindled and pupils left. “I spent the last year wondering who was going to be the next parent to come and say they can’t afford the fees.”

While King’s has a wider geographical pull and more professionals, the drop in pupils was proportionately very similar, from 850 in 2007 to 600 in 2012. Wesson says reasons include recession and the driving up of standards, over some years, at state academies and comprehensives. “That’s putting the private sector under increased pressure,” he says.

I spent the last year wondering who would be the next parent to come and say they can’t afford the fees

In Pennywell, however, private education has never been an option. After years of regeneration attempts, windblown rubbish still strews every bit of wasteland. The local school, now called Academy 360, where 54 per cent of pupils receive free school meals and persistent truancy is more than twice the national average, has been hauling up its examination results from a very low base.

The parent of one pupil, who has her six-year-old daughter on Grindon Hall’s waiting list, says the Academy’s teachers “try their best”. The problem, she says, is the awful example some local parents set their children, including “vile” language. “Some have a heart of gold – and a gob like a gutter.”

Pupils at Grindon Hall, Sunderland©Charlie Bibby

Pupils at Grindon Hall, Sunderland

Across the street, eight-year-old Holly Hathaway is walking home from Grindon Hall with her grandmother Mary Rodger, a local childminder. Holly steps daintily over the wasteland, immaculate in her grey and red uniform, a brimmed, beribboned felt hat perched on her head.

“What I don’t like is we have to wear hats and ties,” murmurs Holly, who transferred from Academy 360 as soon as the fees were dropped. Grindon Hall is “brilliant”, says Rodger. “They have discipline for a start. They don’t have any carry-on. And they tend to push them to achieve to the best of their ability.” Holly’s mum Haylea has also found work there as a cleaner.

No previous pupils have left due to the change. Adele and David Stockton, an IT lecturer and an opticians’ director, had chosen Grindon Hall for its Christian ethos, discipline and small classes. They paid £17,500 a year fees for their three children. News of the free school plan was a shock. “Truthfully, we had some doubts,” says Adele. But, she adds, “It’s gone really well. The children are still very happy.” The classes are now, she says, a bit louder and livelier. “But the discipline is still there and definitely the Christian ethos.”

A Grindon Hall pupil on the way home from school©Charlie Bibby

A Grindon Hall pupil on the way home from school

Most pupils are not churchgoers but Gray describes the ethos as “biblical Christianity”. He considers the national curriculum to be “politicised, not helpful”, is keen on the English baccalaureate, on respect, manners and high expectations. “Children are given too many excuses for poor performance.” The traditional syllabus includes Latin. Biros are banned. If anybody brings in chewing gum, they are fined £5.

In September, the pupil roll leapt to 510. The waiting list has 200 names, including 160 for 40 reception places in September.

The school is bursting with children and, in parts, is a little shabby but Gray would rather invest in staff – the maximum class size is 20 – than carpets. “This will never be an opulent, glitzy school; there are too many of them,” he says. A £3m building project has just started, however, to create a hall, kitchen, restaurant and 14 classrooms. At present some classrooms are outbuildings which once housed a tuberculosis isolation unit.

Development had been shelved as recession struck. “Now Mr Gove [Michael Gove, education secretary] is stepping in and doing it for us, instead of Barclays Bank,” says Gray.

The government’s free school and academy policies effectively cut local authorities out of the equation, yet there are implications for nearby competing schools. Academy 360 is making teachers redundant at present.

The shift from private to state can worry parents too; around 30 King’s children were swiftly moved to other private schools. But this has risks as well; two Newcastle private girls schools have just shocked parents with news they are to merge. Belinda Whitworth, who has a son staying put at King’s and a younger daughter in one of the merging Newcastle schools, reflects, “You cannot simply buy certainty because you want to.”

The King’s School©Charlie Bibby

The King’s School

For private schools in a recession, the only certainty may be uncertainty. When the going is really tough, heads dare not say so. “People will abandon ship,” explains Gray. “That’s why there are so many surprises – and I’m sure there are more to come.”

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Chris Tighe is the FT’s northeast England correspondent

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