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Thursday, 06 September 2018 19:31

Closure of Twice Failed Private School: St Christopher’s, Canterbury

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Update: See recent development at foot of article

I don’t normally comment on private schools, but the closure of St Christopher’s in Canterbury over the summer surely deserves a mention at a time when scrutiny of the Kent Test taken in private schools is in the news.

The school has now been found Inadequate in two consecutive full Ofsted Inspections, most recently in April this year, the first of which I covered in a previous article entitled ‘Buyer Beware: Four Private Schools failed OFSTED Inspection’. The other three have since improved their standards under new leaderships.

St Christopher's

The first of the two key issues in both Inspections was poor leadership, the headteacher, known as ‘The Master’ also being one of the proprietors of the school, ‘A substantial number of staff have lost confidence in the school’s proprietors and leaders’ in 2018, echoing concerns in 2014. Secondly, both inspections describe a culture of poor management of complaints and allegations which, along with inappropriate behaviour, saw the school fail on Safeguarding twice, the second time apparently oblivious of previous criticisms. There is also a range of other serious criticisms, although teaching is described as Good, pinpointing where the problems lie. 

The school claimed very high success rates at the Kent Test which fell below the genuine figures and in 2017 it was instructed by the Advertising Standards Authority to remove false claims of a 92% pass rate from the sides of local buses. For entry this September, the success rate for grammar school admission had fallen to 57%. Ofsted is quite clear about the purpose of the school: ‘many are able to achieve a place at local grammar schools, in line with the school’s aims’.

Pupil numbers were falling sharply before the closure, presumably because of the poor reputation of the school.

In between the two full inspections, there were four interim inspections indicating the high level of concern of the Ofsted regime. An emergency inspection in 2015 notes: ‘Leadership at the school is weak. Leaders have not been able to pull the school community together for the common good of the pupils. Serious and significant divisions between staff have led to difficulties in securing a consistent approach to tackling the management of safeguarding at the school. The ‘family ethos’ of the school has blurred the professional boundaries that are needed to maintain effective working relationships. This causes a culture of mistrust, claim and counter claim; all of which means there is too little focus on the welfare of pupils. The deputy headteacher has left the school and not been replaced. As a result, the only senior leader at the school with appropriate educational experience is the headteacher’. And still those responsible for the school did nothing! What an indictment.

Over the years when I was supporting school admission appeals, I was approached by St Christopher’s parents for assistance a number of times, but only took on one, for I found the too frequent attitude of “my child has been to St Christopher’s; I am entitled to a grammar school place”, intolerable. My previous article contains one anecdote illustrating this, and alleging maladministration of the test; another parent alleging to me that illustrations of answers and methods could be seen in the test room. For the one appeal I did carry through, I was surprised to find the headteacher turn up at the parental home for the consultation. I was dismayed by the confidence he showed that he fully understood the situation, would take charge and prepare a strong letter of support, politely implying that my input was unnecessary, whilst his comments suggested he didn’t know how the system worked or what would be required.

It is therefore no surprise that I described St Christopher’s as a dreadful school in my previous article, and that there appears to have been a loss of confidence by parents the roll having fallen by 20% over the four years between the two Inspections to 85 pupils, precipitating financial difficulties and the closure decision. Presumably, the £9975 annual fees are no longer regard as the investment the school proudly proclaimed (see my previous article).

Rescue Plan
However, according to the Kent Messenger, a remarkable rescue plan has been proposed, led by Mr Stuart Pywell, Headteacher of St Stephen’s Junior School in Canterbury. The school's only previous experience of managing another school was with the Pilgrim’s Way Primary School in the run up to its Ofsted failure in 2013, after which it was sponsored by another academy trust.

Although this is a moderately sized junior school in the city, last year Mr Pywell was paid the highest salary of any primary head in the county, his school receiving a Good Ofsted in 2017 and a good record of success at grammar school entrance.

I am struggling to see the justification for a state school to take part in the running of a private school, although presumably there will be a management fee in return. Moreover, the KM article makes clear that St Christopher’s also had financial difficulties and has a target initial roll of 30-50 pupils, which is surely not viable in the large Victorian premises, and in any case will require an enormous input of time and energy to get the scheme off the ground.

More importantly, surely one has to ask the bigger question of the appropriateness of a scheme which diverts state school resources to supporting fee paying pupils. Mr Pywell is quoted as saying: "It is a sad situation to see such a long-established school close and we just want to try and see if there is anything we can do for those parents and children to keep it going, using our experience and resources. There could also be opportunities for children from the new school to benefit from St Stephen's facilities."

The bottom line is that this was a badly run private enterprise that rightly failed. Whilst I feel very sorry for the pupils who have been let down by St Christopher’s leaders, it can be no business of a state school to effectively re-start a new commercial company requiring a very different ethos and a demanding customer base in this way, even though presumably it would be indemnified against any financial loss.

Update: 8th September; I am told the Rescue Plan has been abandoned

Read 760 times Last modified on Saturday, 08 September 2018 13:31

1 comment

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 20 November 2018 14:21 posted by Andrea

    Your article paints such an accurate picture of the school. I worked there some time ago and I could not believe what I witnessed (however,not from all staff). I ended up leaving because I felt too uncomfortable about so many things. My children went there when it was a 'better place' but looking back I wish I hadn't chose this school, and on a number of occasions looked at other schools but didn't want to add any further upheaval to their childhood as there father had left us. Thank you for writing all my thoughts on the school that were only listened to by a few when I worked there. The parents were hoodwinked and sort of 'groomed' by the management (all being family members).

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