Page 9, 28th April 1995

28th April 1995
Page 9
Page 9, 28th April 1995 — The anatomy of how schools steady their parents for a merger

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The anatomy of how schools steady their parents for a merger

The decision to close or merge schools need not automatically bring tears, argues David Wiles, tlae chairman of one parents' association going through the big change. IFELT VERY SAD when reading your 'Assembly' article last month on the forthcoming closure of the Marist College in Fulham, London. It did appear from the letter written by "one angry parent",,as you described her, that whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, an irreconcilable breakdown had occurred between the school foundationlboard of governors and the parents.

Here in peaceful East Kent (Westgate-on-Sea to be precise) the potential for a similar situation arose recently. However, I am delighted to report a completely different outcome. In Westgate we have the Ursuline Convent School for Girls aged 11-18, and a little way along the same road the Joint Abbey Preparatory School for young boys and St Augustine's College for 13-18. Both the boys' schools are run under the foundation of the Benedictines. All three schools share the same Christian ethos.

In February a bombshell dropped through the letterbox of every parent of all three schools. For critical financial reasons the Benedictines were withdrawing from the Abbey school and St Augustine's College, both of which would now definitely close at the end of the Summer Term 1995.

However, seizing a once-in-alifetime opportunity it was proposed to continue independent Catholic education in the area by expanding the Ursuline Convent School to become the co-educational Ursuline College, thereby absorbing the boys' schools.

The Ursuline College would cater for a Junior Department; single-sex education for both sexes aged 11-16; and a coeducational sixth-form college. The result a new independent educational force with a future. The letter invited all parents to a meeting on 28 February at the Ursuline School hosted by the Ursuline Foundation and Fr Augustine, the headmaster of the boys' schools.

Full and candid consultation was promised. The letter also stressed that the way ahead depended entirely on the successful take-up of Ursuline College places by the boys. Careful plans had also been formulated for building workings on the Ursuline site, all to be completed to accommodate boys by September this year. Clearly a vast amount of planning had been undertaken by a small management hierarchy in great secrecy, in a short time.

Like many parents, my immediate reaction was one of unease about the whole proposal, particularly as the wonderful girls' school I had taken to heart was to be invaded by yuk boys (even if I am an old one, an Old Williamsonian to be exact).

Well,,we attended the meeting my Wife, myself, and about 300 others! Sr Frances Oakley OSU, the Ursuline Provincial opened the meeting by inviting questions on any subject and stressing that there would be no time limit on the meeting. So far as I could tell there were no legal advisers present and no-one was excluded.

The ease for the new Ursuline College was put by Fr Augustine OSB, Sr Mary Murphy OSU the soon to retire headmistress, and Sr Alice Montgomery OSU the headmistress-elect.

Many varied questions of concern (including one from me) and support came from the floor. All questions appeared to be addressed honestly and frankly, although perhaps not surprisingly there were one or two grey areas. But, at the end of the meeting, the overwhelming majority of boys' parents signed up on the spot for the new college.

Although there are to be redundancies among the Ursuline School staff, there willinevitably be some among the staffof the current boys' schools. I cannot forget these victims of the closure but I realise that nothing I could say could remedy their personal traumas.The damage has however been limited as about 12 members of the St Augustine's staff will be taking up posts in the new College as well as several ancillary staff presently employed there.

In my opinion the management has handled the whole matter sensitively, professionally and wisely by treating the parents as a vital component of the process. Secrecy there was, but then a level of secrecy was essential for obvious reasons.

Reactions from the children have been very positive. a controlled integration of the two sixth forms had already been in operation for some time. An enlarged campus offering expanded resources can only be of benefit to all the children.

And, after all, it is the children that matter, isn't it?

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