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Are Norfolk's parents turning their backs on private schools?

PUBLISHED: 11:14 22 December 2019 | UPDATED: 14:28 22 December 2019

Town Close School, an independent prep school in Norwich. Picture: Town Close School

Town Close School, an independent prep school in Norwich. Picture: Town Close School

Town Close School

Political and economic changes in the UK over the past decade have hit private education schools. But despite recent closures independent schools in Norfolk believe the market is still strong. Bethany Whymark reports.

A stunning morning at Langley Park as Langley School's year 10 and 11 pupils head to Chapel. Picture: Langley SchoolA stunning morning at Langley Park as Langley School's year 10 and 11 pupils head to Chapel. Picture: Langley School

The number of pupils at independent schools in Norfolk is in slow, long term decline but the sector says it is it has a bright future.

A school census in January 2019 reported there were 5,918 pupils being taught in 32 independent schools. This compares to 6,260 pupils in 33 schools in 2010 and 6,119 pupils in 31 schools in 2015.

Headteachers across the county said the landscape for private education had changed significantly in the past decade but that pupil numbers for many remained healthy.

It comes after a number of independent school closures in the past year including Hethersett Old Hall School, St Nicholas House Prep School in North Walsham and Sacred Heart School in Swaffham.

According to Department for Education figures, participation in private education in Norfolk has fallen slightly in the past decade but the number of schools has remained stable.

Thetford Grammar School. Picture: Sonya DuncanThetford Grammar School. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Michael Brewer, headteacher at Thetford Grammar School, said the most significant changes during his 15 years in the independent education sector came with the financial crash in 2008.

"The story for most independent schools was that most were able to withstand that economic crash, but it was the shock we had three or four years later which closed a lot of schools.

"Once a school has invested its resources into staying afloat during the crash, there is less money to invest in other things," he said.

"It became much more of a parents' market after that. Smaller schools that could not continue to invest in their facilities or teaching staff fell behind."

Mr Brewer said pupil numbers at the grammar school were on the rise, while the customer profile had shifted to include more families with two working parents.

Michael Brewer, headteacher at Thetford Grammar School. Picture: Thetford Grammar SchoolMichael Brewer, headteacher at Thetford Grammar School. Picture: Thetford Grammar School

An Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) report in June this year said it has 193 pupils aged three to 18, compared with 307 in 2012.

Mr Brewer said: "We have grown 22pc in the last 12 months to just over 200 pupils and that growth looks sustainable over the next couple of years."

Nicholas Bevington, headmaster at Town Close Prep School in Norwich, said while the independent education market in London had been left relatively unscathed by the crash the environment outside the capital had changed markedly.

He said: "I spoke to the head of a prep school in Essex recently who told me he had to make nine members of staff redundant last summer because of the economic environment, and that is a school within the London commuter belt."

He echoed the belief that smaller schools had a raw deal due to the increasing complexity and financial demands of running a school.

"The regulation and compliance in areas such as health and safety and recruitment are more details than they ever were. The sort of IT infrastructure you need to have and expertise in certain areas means if you are a smaller organisation it can be hard to provide and afford all of that.

"The rising cost of employing people, for example teachers' pensions, is another factor. Teachers are more valued but in order to provide teachers you need to have the resources and it has made smaller classes and smaller schools less viable," he said.

According to the Department for Education Town Close School has 463 pupils on roll, down from 494 in its last ISI inspection in 2017 but close to its 2011 total of 456.

Despite a noticeable drop in potential customers, Mr Bevington was confident of its appeal as a smaller city school.

"Although parents make a considerable investment for us, it is considerably less than for a rural day or boarding school so we are in reach of professionals whereas others have become out of reach for their traditional market," he said.

An outdoor story for some of the Town Close School year two children. Picture: Town Close SchoolAn outdoor story for some of the Town Close School year two children. Picture: Town Close School

"People under-estimate the grounding you can get in the early years. It is immensely valuable if you are then not able to carry on in the independent system."

Peter Agate, headmaster at Riddlesworth Hall School, said parental advocacy was driving sharp rises in pupil numbers.

The roll increased from 77 in February 2017 to 86 in March 2018 and Mr Agate says greater engagement with current and potential parents has helped numbers rise by a further 60pc in the past eight months, to around 120.

The PTA organises events such as a summer antiques fair and autumn fair, which this year attracted several thousand visitors and, according to Mr Agate, led to a lot of enquiries about school places. There is also a popular baby and toddler group which acts as a pipeline for pupils.

"I think a lot of schools lose that vision of being a family school. We keep that family ethos and the community is huge; what the PTA has done here is vital to the school," he said.

Town Close School headmaster Nicholas Bevington. Picture: Town Close SchoolTown Close School headmaster Nicholas Bevington. Picture: Town Close School

Mr Agate said the school worked to keep its fees low, which it was able to balance with premiums from overseas students.

He added: "We need to change and adapt, to move on with the market. With those changes come development and applications for other facilities from which the whole school will benefit."

Jon Perriss, headmaster at Langley School, said the range of independent education options remained strong in Norfolk.

Its last ISI inspection in January 2017 said the school had 561 pupils on roll, while the Department for Education reports its current total as 514.

"Often you are getting applicants who are completely new to independent education, some of whom have moved from a different part of the country," he said.

"We have got a lot of boarders from different countries which adds to the diversity of the school. With the current state of the pound, for the international community British education is a pretty good option at the moment.

"You look at disturbances in Honk Kong and turmoil in various parts of the world and the stability of British education is something to be proud of."

While continuing to push for good-quality education Mr Perriss said it was important for independent heads not to take their eyes off the finances.

"Calling us a business is a bit vulgar - we are a charity, but we have to make the numbers add up," he said.

"Langley is in a good place but we are always looking to improve and being new here I am looking at things and evolving things.

Riddlesworth Hall Preparatory School where Princess Diana spent some of her childhood. Picture: ANTONY KELLYRiddlesworth Hall Preparatory School where Princess Diana spent some of her childhood. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Recent political events have shaken the independent education sector.

For schools which take pupils from abroad, Brexit could present considerable challenges.

For Chinese-owned Riddlesworth Hall School, the Asian market is pivotal.

Headmaster Peter Agate said: "If we leave the EU in January as Boris Johnson has planned, we will look to the international market to look for more people overseas, but we will not swamp the school."

Peter Agate, headteacher of Riddlesworth Hall School, where Lady Diana was educated. Picture: Ella WilkinsonPeter Agate, headteacher of Riddlesworth Hall School, where Lady Diana was educated. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Michael Brewer from Thetford Grammar School said the effects of Brexit were likely to hit parents harder.

"We won't be the only independent school with parents who are unsure if their job might be moved abroad or if their company will be badly affected," he said.

Meanwhile, the Labour party manifesto for the general election promised measures to rein in private education.

Nick Bevington of Town Close School said: "Independent schools can help children to flourish in a way they may not have done in the state sector. We are directly financially contributing and turning around what may be their contribution to society.

"We are not trying to compete, we are providing something else in the wider educational mix and offering a choice where choice is appropriate."

Riddlesworth Hall Preparatory School where Princess Diana spent some of her childhood. Picture: ANTONY KELLYRiddlesworth Hall Preparatory School where Princess Diana spent some of her childhood. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

While independent schools generally have lower pupil numbers overall, their small class sizes are also attractive to some parents.

Research by the National Education Union last month found thousands of pupils in secondary and primary state schools in Norfolk were being taught in classes of more than 30 and some in classes of more than 35.

A poll of teachers by the union also revealed that reducing class sizes was a key priority for many.

Michael Brewer, from Thetford Grammar School, said the school kept its class sizes at 18 or below.

"By and large they deliver good results. That is the big pull for a lot of parents, they want an environment where their child is going to get a lot of developmental time with the teacher," he said.

Higher teacher-to-pupil ratios is also a major selling point at Riddlesworth Hall School. Classes are generally no bigger than 16, which headmaster Peter Agate said gave children "more time with the teacher".

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