30th Nov, 2020

Former head expresses 'extreme sadness, shock and anger' over proposed Coventry Schools merger

Catherine Vonledebur 25th Oct, 2020 Updated: 3rd Nov, 2020

THE former headteacher at King Henry VIII School in Coventry George Fisher has reacted to news of the school’s proposed merger with Bablake School with ‘extreme sadness, shock and anger’.

Earlier this month on Thursday October 1, Julia McNaney, Chair of Governors for the Coventry School Foundation announced the merger of these two historic city independent schools into a single all-through day school for three to 18-year-olds from September next year. It will be called Coventry School, but the Bablake and King Henry VIII names will be preserved.

She said a two-year transition period will take place during an ‘ambitious re-development’ stating the decision for the merger came after ‘a substantial period of detailed planning by the governing body and senior leadership teams of all schools’.

Parents from both schools have objected to the plans and united to form a petition to Stop the Coventry Schools Merger, which has so far received more than 3,260 signatures.

Following his retirement Mr Fisher, who was headmaster at King Henry’s between 2000 and 2010, worked as a lead inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), and has provided support to both schools with inspection preparation. He is currently a governor within the maintained sector.

Mr Fisher’s main concerns are the lack of prior consultation with parents and no hint at the rationale behind these ‘drastic measures’.

He said: “Parents were taken aback, many of whom will have made the decision for their child to attend Bablake or King Henry’s after much thought, and based around family connections, travel logistics and the distinctive ‘feel’ of the two schools.

“Pupils will also be shocked at the loss of identity and the unwanted additional uncertainty in their lives. The timescale for proposed merger is very short, with serious implications for pupils approaching external examinations.

“The most recent publicly available documents are the Foundation accounts through to August 31, 2018, the accompanying auditor’s comments, and the (‘Excellent’) inspection reports on both schools in recent years.  There is no hint within any documents of the need for such an upheaval, or that finances demanded such draconian measures. So, what has happened since?”

Mr Fisher also feels there is a lack of public evidence showing any proper consideration of alternative models for the two schools, which currently house around 2,300 pupils aged three to 18.

He said: “Many other possible structures could be tried if there is insufficient demand for independent, selective schooling: for example, one school might be non-selective, or one might become an academy with the other remaining a fee-paying school.  Did governors consider properly these alternatives, and, if so, why did they not consult with the schools?”

Under the newly announced plans for Coventry School, pupils aged four to 11 will be based at the Coventry School prep campus at King Henry VIII where a brand new covered play and learning area will be created for Reception classes. Senior pupils, aged 11 to 18, will be housed at the Coventry School senior campus at Bablake. Here,  a brand-new sixth form centre will be built. Nursery pupils will be based at The Grange.

By September 2022 the Foundation says all pupils will be on their own age-specific campuses, ‘with facilities and opportunities that are closely matched to their evolving needs’.

Mr Fisher expressed concerns over a ‘waste of resources’ by the Foundation.

He said: “Governors have frittered large sums of money in pursuing planning permission for a new Bablake Junior School at Hollyfast Road – sums in excess of £1million have been quoted.

“Now more than £3million has been spent on buying and renovating the Grange Site on Brownshill Green Road meanwhile the Swallow’s site (the former Coventry Prep School) will presumably need to be sold.

“Under the proposed plans, the purpose-built Sixth Form Centre at King Henry VIII School will become redundant whilst the current junior school at Bablake is flattened and a Sixth Form Centre built in its place.  Meanwhile, King Henry VIII senior school will be ‘adapted’ to make it suitable for junior aged pupils.

“My fears for the future are that I don’t believe that the proposed structure will appeal to pupils, parents or staff. I think that the King Henry VIII site – which will be running at around 30 per cent capacity – will become redundant and that within a few years the doors will close on over 475 years of education.

“What irony that what the Blitz of Coventry could not achieve in 1940 might now happen through ‘friendly fire’, and the actions of those responsible for supposedly safeguarding the education and aspirations of pupils and their parents.

“My hope is that governors will pause their actions, take stock of all of the comments which they have received, consider alternative possibilities, consult with parents and reflect on the fact that schools with the longest histories are often those which are the most vibrant, creative and formative; they do not wish to become museums.”

The retired head added that if the Coventry School Foundation wishes to go ahead with the current plan, a better alternative might be to dissolve the Foundation, return the capital assets of King Henry VIII to the school and allow it to function as a free-standing school with its own board of governors – either as an independent or as an LA-funded academy if there is a shortage of secondary school places within Coventry.

On October 1 a joint statement to staff the Heads of Coventry Foundation Schools, Caroline Soan, Lorrian Holder, Phil Dearden and Andrew Wright said: “At the heart of our plan for Coventry School is the determination to bring everything that we do well across our four schools into one educational establishment, providing a consistently high-quality academic, well-rounded education for all.”

Julia McNaney, Chair of Governors for the Coventry School Foundation previously stated: “Throughout our 400-year history our schools have thrived by adapting to circumstances while staying true to our mission to provide a first-class, affordable independent education for the children of Coventry and beyond.

“The creation of the new Coventry School is the next chapter in that proud history. By creating dedicated age-specific campuses under a single Coventry School leadership we will provide more choice and opportunity to every child.”

Today she had no further comment to make.

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