A place of my own;Interview;Ruth Gledhill;Primary

19th June 1998 at 01:00
When teacher Liz Gledhill talks about 'my school', she means it - she bought the building when the previous owner went bust. Martin Whittaker reports

On the morning of August 31 last year, Liz Gledhill sat glued to her television screen - in shock along with the rest of the nation at the news of Princess Diana's death.

"I'd come back from a holiday in the States the day before and still had jetlag," she recalls. "I was woken by my daughter telling me Princess Diana had died. Then I had this phone call out of the blue."

The call was from a fellow teacher. Their primary school had gone into receivership after its owner was declared bankrupt. Now it was up for sale.

As independent Manor School, in the pretty village of Norton Fitzwarren near Taunton, Somerset, teetered on the brink of closure, Liz Gledhill took the decision of a lifetime. With just a week before the start of term, she stepped in and bought the school.

Pupil numbers were plummeting as parents withdrew their children following news of the bankruptcy. And inside she found chaos. But she and her team of six staff have managed to turn the school around.

Today Liz can proudly show visitors around well-ordered, busy classrooms at the renamed Manor Independent School, which now has 50 pupils from a 30-mile radius. The pound;600-a-term school has a creche and a nursery and takes children from babies to age 11.

She admits she has faced a steep learning curve. Liz Gledhill came late into teaching. After a varied career, including a spell as a horse dealer and bringing up two children, she took a diploma in pre-school education. Then, at 39, she took a degree in politics and social policy. Manor School was her first teaching job.

From the outside, the Victorian school building seemed idyllic. Inside, it was anything but. When Liz Gledhill had arrived at the start of the 1997 summer term, she'd found it in turmoil, the staff dissatisfied and demoralised.

So when her contract had expired at the end of that first term, she'd decided not to renew it.

But then came that telephone call. Manor school's owner, Paul Purvis, a former chief executive of North Devon District Council, had been made bankrupt and the school put into the hands of trustees appointed by the Official Receiver.

Manor school, still a going concern, was offered for sale to the staff. Liz had just five days to act. "It was a terrible shame. It was a lovely school. The potential was obvious."

The sharp horse dealer in her took over. She did a feasibility study and approached her bank, which granted her a loan to buy the business - she leases the building. Hours before the September 5 deadline, she became the school's owner. (She will not disclose how much she paid.) The next day - the day of Princess Diana's funeral - she tried to get into the school. But Paul Purvis, whose wife, Sara, had been headteacher, refused to leave the premises. The police were called and they were evicted.

"It was like the relief of Bosnia," she recalls. "The villagers were out side in a row, clapping as he left.

"I don't know what they'd been doing there all summer, but the school was crammed full of stuff - furniture, books, sports equipment, toys, games, stationery, typewriters. Much of the school was also filthy."

The school roll had dwindled from 60 to just 22. Newspaper headlines such as "Police eject school boss" and "Bankrupt couple's school sold to teacher" hadn't helped. But gradually numbers started creeping back up.

"The record-keeping was a nightmare - they didn't have any," she says. "Suddenly I had to learn about things I knew nothing about, including PAYE. I must have spent 50 per cent of my time sorting out the mess.

"We put huge signs up saying 'under new management'. The first thing I did was open the doors and have everybody in. I had to do that to bring confidence back in the community."

One drawback of school ownership is a reduction in the amount of teaching she can do. "Administration takes up most of my time," she says. "I also do the cleaning and the gardening. One minute I'm the headteacher, the next I'm cleaning the toilets."

But despite this, Liz Gledhill, who is separated with two teenage children, is content. "For a first year it really couldn't have gone a lot better. I was anticipating trading at a loss, but I won't be doing that. And the children say they feel different now - the school is relaxed and happy."

The teachers are paid the proper rate for the job, she says, but so far she has been able to pay herself only pound;3,000 a year.

Has she fulfilled a dream? The teacher who bought the school because she liked it so much? She remains practical.

"It was purely a set of events. Something is presented to you. You take it or leave it. I thought even if I fail, at least I will have tried."

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