A company headed by a millionaire Tory donor has been accused of “corporate greed” over plans to close a much-loved private school.
Sir John Ritblat, the veteran property investor and Conservative donor who built the developer British Land, is chairman of a private education group that has given parents less than a term’s notice of a proposed school closure.
Parents of boys at Falcons Pre-Preparatory School in Chiswick, west London, were told on the second day of the new school year that a three-week consultation was launching with a view to potentially closing the school as soon as December.
The proposed closure was announced three months after Sir John, 87, informed parents that conditional contracts had been exchanged for the sale of the Falcons’ parent company, Alpha Plus, to Inspired Education – an international private school company with a reported valuation of more than £5 billion.
The takeover, which is pending regulatory approval, includes the sale of 17 schools including central London’s Wetherby Preparatory School, once attended by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex.
In a statement, parents of children at Falcons told The Telegraph: “This is an egregious example of corporate greed.
“It is scandalous that children have been given a matter of weeks to find new schools, which is causing huge anxiety and upset.
“We are calling for a full investigation by the regulator and for the Education Secretary to instruct the school to remain open until the end of the academic year.
“Education should not be treated as just another commodity. We would say to anyone thinking of sending their child to an Inspired Education or Alpha Plus school – don’t.
“It’s clear that they are simply interested in maximising profit over the well-being and education of children.”
A total of 30 staff at the school face redundancy.
The parents claim Mark Hanley-Browne, the chief executive of Alpha Plus, has refused to meet them.
Ruth Cadbury, Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, said: “I was extremely concerned to hear that my constituents and parents across west London face the risk of seeing a popular and well-loved school closing at such short notice.
“I am very disappointed that it appears that there has not been proper and thorough engagement with either parents, school staff and the local authority about this proposed closure, and the huge impact it would have on our community.
“I will be writing to the school as a matter of urgency to raise this matter and to ask a series of important questions.’’
Mr Hanley-Browne said the decision was “in large part a consequence of declining pupil numbers at the school”, which opened with 62 children in September when it has capacity for 180 pupils.
“Although the school is undoubtedly much loved by those parents whose children are attending the school, not enough parents in the Chiswick area have been choosing this school,” he said.
“It’s important to stress that the consultation is ongoing and that we are listening carefully to the views of parents and staff.
“We have made not one but two proposals of alternative schools, with a free bus service running between Chiswick and Putney or Fulham. Furthermore, we committed to providing guaranteed places at other Alpha Plus schools in London, should the school be closed, although to be clear no decision has been taken thus far.”
‘Just not enough pupils’
An Inspired Education spokesman said: “While we appreciate that this will be an unsettling time for the school, it is important to clarify that Inspired has yet to take ownership of any Alpha Plus schools and that there are absolutely no conditions in the transaction that involve the closure of any schools.
“Irrespective of ownership, our concern is that the proper legal process is followed and the wellbeing of all individuals involved.”
Sir John said: “As chairman of Alpha Plus I am, along with the rest of the board, of course saddened that pupils and parents have been caused distress by the consultation on a potential closure of this much-loved school.
“It is always a very difficult decision to consider closing a school, particularly for a company such as Alpha Plus which has always prided itself on a commitment to only the very best in education and welfare standards, and to giving every child in its care the best possible start in life.
“I hope parents will understand that we took the decision to launch the consultation because a school with around 60 children in it, from age two to seven, is potentially no longer educationally viable.
“We have followed procedures, and the decision to consult categorically has nothing to do with any other outside factors.
“The decision to launch this consultation arises simply because there are just not enough pupils signing up to the school, given the competition in the local area.”