A prestigious country house preparatory boarding school attended by former Labour prime minister Clement Attlee has announced that it will close because of falling numbers and rising costs.
The closure of Norman Court School near Salisbury, Wiltshire, came as a surprise to some in the sector, as the latest census figures indicate that pupil numbers across private schools are picking up for the first time in four years.
TES reported in April that overall numbers were up by 0.1 per cent, boosted by a 1.2 per cent rise in London and the South East (TES 27 April). However, the overall statistics, compiled by the Independent Schools Council, also hid some decline in pupil numbers outside the South East, where numbers were down 0.7 per cent.
Governors of the 131-year-old school said that the past year had been "particularly difficult" and that it would have needed a "substantial injection of funding" to continue to thrive. The school said the landlord of the Georgian Grade II-listed mansion it is housed in had been "a generous benefactor" over the years, but he was no longer able to help fund it.
The closure follows the announcement last week by Liverpool College - a member of the prestigious Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference - that it will abandon fees and join the state sector.
Norman Court said discussions to find a buyer for the estate who could invest in the school - once owned by the Barings banking dynasty - had failed. It added that a "passionate rescue committee" of parents and a governor had raised substantial sums, but was unable to come up with a viable rescue package.
Norman Court has 90 staff and about 200 pupils, of which more than 50 are boarders.
Founded in 1881 as Northaw School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, the school later moved to Pluckley in Kent. In 1952, its premises were destroyed by fire and the school moved to its present site. It was renamed in 1995.
Other notable alumni of the #163;21,000-a-year school include diplomat and environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell and England rugby player Tom Homer.
Janette Wallis, senior editor of The Good Schools Guide, which has an overview of the schools market in individual regions, said Norman Court may be the victim of stiff competition from other institutions in the area. Its remote location may also have made it less attractive to London-based parents.
"Salisbury has a glut of fabulous prep schools," she told TES. "It's saturated, it's as simple as that, and it's just been a matter of time before one of them collapsed. One less school in the area will be a big help to the remaining schools."
Chair of governors Elizabeth Prescott Decie said: "I cannot speak too highly of the headmaster, the staff and the parents in their unstinting efforts to save this wonderful school.
"We are all immensely proud of Norman Court and its many great achievements over the past 131 years.
"Those whose lives have been touched by the school will attest to its exceptional educational record, its enormously happy children and its common room of talented staff.
"We as a governing body are committed to supporting every teacher in their search for alternative employment and to ensuring that each child is placed safely in a suitable alternative school."
0.1% - Increase in overall pupil numbers at independent schools
1.2% - Increase in overall pupil numbers in London and the South East
-1.8% - Drop in day pupil numbers in the North of England
-1.3% - Drop in boarding numbers in the South West
-3.1% - Drop in boarding numbers in East Anglia
Source: ISC Annual Census 2012.