The long goodbye

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Head Bridget Patterson was the first to know her girls' boarding school would close. But she couldn't tell anyone until after the exams The snippet in The Times headlined "Another Girls' School Closes" gives no picture of what life is actually like in a school which has been sentenced to sudden death. This is no exaggeration: the emotions everyone feels are those of bereavement - shock, anger, denial and grief.

The reasons why the girls' boarding school of which I was head closed at the end of the summer term are another story. This article was written to give some idea of what the process was like and to offer advice.

I knew the governors' decision before anyone else. Yet I had to continue to see prospective pupils, discuss timetabling problems and plan all the usual end-of-summer-term events. The governors had decided that closure should not jeopardise the chances of girls taking public exams so an announcement was planned immediately after they had finished.

It was my secretary who panicked first, alarmed by the increasing number of meetings to which I kept disappearing and the inordinate length of my telephone conversations. It became difficult to fob her off but I couldn't tell her what was going on. In spite of widely circulating local rumours, I had to keep up the fiction that all was well until the agreed date.

I did, however, tell my deputy. You need someone who is there every day for mutual support. After her initial shock and anger, she proved to be a tower of strength. There were days before the official announcement was made when we were both in despair and hardly functioning. We usually managed to despair on alternate days, so at least one of us was coping.

The plan was to tell the girls and their parents at the beginning of an exeat weekend so that they could be at home together to discuss the next step. (We had 170 pupils - about three-quarters of whom were boarders.) The day girls were to have a letter first thing Saturday, and I was to tell the boarders at breakfast time. The upper sixth, needless to say, had been up carousing to celebrate finishing A-levels and couldn't believe that they were summoned for 7.45am. They thought that someone had either died or been expelled for a truly awful crime.

Reactions varied from a stunned silence to outbreaks of weeping. A small number of staff volunteers took them off in groups to talk. For me, telling pupils I knew well that their school was going to close was the most difficult task of the whole weekend. It fell to the catering manager (another strong supporter) to watch, rather aghast, as I hid in his office for a quick sob before facing the next lot of people.

Inevitably mistakes were made - for instance, the staff reception committee for day girls discovered that a significant proportion had not received their letter and knew nothing about it.

We had meetings throughout the weekend for parents. Many were in tears, many so angry it was frightening and some too shocked to say much at all. They were all incredibly nice to me, which made it all the more difficult to keep the upper lip stiff.

The chairman of governors (herself an old girl of the school) and another governor spent the weekend with me in my school house. It became the base for reviewing the battle plans and quick cups of tea - and an impromptu press office. If you don't already have a good working relationship with your local media, cultivate one assiduously. I was fortunate that in spite of the warnings of mayhem I had received from another colleague in the same position, the local press and radio were exemplary in their behaviour and reporting. The exception was the television crew which turned up unannounced at my home.

I had also been warned about "vultures". Many independent schools are fighting to survive and the speed with which prospectuses arrived was stunning - usually accompanied by a letter saying how truly sorry the head was but how ideal their school would be for my pupils. The winner was the school which sent a personal envoy with a large box of advertising material which was delivered three hours after the public announcement. I think it's still where I left it.

The head who will be forever remembered, however, is the one who sent his deputy with a case of wine and a note which said "just in case you don't have time to get to the shops..."

I had decided to keep the end of term as normal as possible; this included the traditional leavers' service and prizegiving. I cancelled the speaker (who was very understanding) and invited the mayor to come as a representative of the local community.

Both occasions were emotional but necessary rituals. We finished with the "ultimate" staff party in the beautiful garden of the school house.

For many of the girls, school had been their security. I still think particularly of the suicidal 15-year-old who had at last agreed that she needed help; the girl whose mother was too busy to have her home for the holidays because she was re-marrying; the sisters who asked to board to get away from their violent father.

There were, and still are, huge problems for staff, some of whom had given 17 years of their life to the school and then received only two weeks notice to leave. (They did receive their salaries for this autumn term.) A few have found jobs, even if temporary, but others have become depressed and ill.

They all meet in the "school" pub on the first Monday of the month to exchange news and give each other support and encouragement. The local community is still coming to terms with the loss of one of its larger employers.

Bridget Patterson was head of an East Anglian boarding school which closed this summer.

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