Independent schools have weathered the recession better than many in the sector had feared, with pupil numbers holding steady and closures relatively rare. But teachers at a struggling pound;9,000-a-year independent in Lancashire are facing a more difficult future after being told their school is to merge - and that they face the sack if they object.
King Edward VII and Queen Mary School (KEQMS) in Lytham St Annes is being merged with nearby rival Arnold School in Blackpool. Both are members of the elite Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference group of independent schools, but the merger has brought accusations of greed and vindictiveness as the fallout is absorbed by staff and parents.
The merger will see Arnold's staff and pupils move up to Lytham next September to create a 1,100-pupil school. In a letter to parents, KEQMS chair of governors Canon Godfrey Hirst, who has now resigned following hostility from parents, blamed declining pupil numbers for the move. "It is very clear from an analysis of the demographic trends that there is a surplus of pupil places at independent schools (in the area)," he wrote.
But in a letter to staff, it was clear that objections to the merger would not be welcomed. The United Church Schools Trust (UCST), which runs Arnold School, wrote: "You may object to your employment transferring to UCST by written notice to the KEQMS governors or UCST. However, if you do that your employment will end and you will not be entitled to redundancy pay or any other continuing benefits."
The acting chair of governors at KEQMS, David Webb, said the message was consistent with Tupe regulations. But a number of teachers at KEQMS have been left dismayed by the actions of UCST. In an informal ballot, 82 per cent voted against the merger, with some questioning UCST's long-term motives. "You expect them to be Christian, but they're just ruthless," said one teacher, who asked not to be named. "They're not bothered about the casualties. They just want to get their hands on Arnold School and flog it. We all know there are going to be redundancies."
Teachers have also told TES that UCST wants the fine detail of the merger wrapped up by the third week of next month, with staff being switched to UCST contracts. "October 21 is what they're aiming for," another staff member said. "There is a complete lack of trust with UCST. I think they're worried about pupils being pulled out of school and so want to get it done fairly quickly to try to calm things down."
UCST runs 11 independent schools, and its sister charity, United Learning Trust, is one of the country's biggest academy sponsors. Already the head of KEQMS, Robert Karling, has lost out to his opposite number at Arnold, Jim Keefe, in the battle to be in charge of the enlarged school, which will be called Arnold KEQMS - or AKS.
UCST acting chief executive Charlotte Rendle-Short said that growth of the new school should keep job losses to a minimum. "We hope and anticipate the vast majority of staff from Arnold and KEQMS will choose to be part of AKS," she said. "We accept that there will need to be some rationalisation of staffing structures, but hope to achieve this through natural wastage."
No decision has been taken on the future of the Arnold School site, but if it is sold the money will be put back into education, she added.
Ms Rendle-Short has also been engaged in fire-fighting as the situation becomes increasingly fraught. Along with other senior figures, she put her name to a letter to parents to criticise "defamatory and personally vindictive" comments made by merger opponents. A parents' action group set up to fight the move is being backed by local Conservative MP Mark Menzies, who devised an alternative business plan for the school.
"We are convinced that governors have not carried out robust enough due diligence on the non-UCST options," a letter from parents to the governors of KEQMS said. "The future of the school is determined by the final decisions now made and it is too important an issue for anyone to simply rush through with heads down and ears and minds closed."
UCST has vowed to push on and create an "outstanding" new school. With the economy again heading in the wrong direction, others may be forced to follow suit.
According to its last three sets of accounts, pupil numbers at King Edward VII and Queen Mary School slipped from 625 in 2008 to 601 last year - a 4 per cent drop - while the amount of money it brought in during the period, pound;14.7 million, was outstripped by the pound;15.5 million it spent.
UCST plans to bring fees at the merged school in line with the annual pound;9,060 charged at Arnold School and said it will embark on a pound;6.2 million building programme at the King Edward site.
Information regarding pupil numbers and income and expenditure at Arnold School was not available.