Parents raise #163;40k so Phoenix can rise from flames of historic prep

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Ten members of staff re-employed for new 'free' school in luxury country house hotel

Teachers and parents left devastated by the closure of a prep school have opened a replacement less than two months later.

Staff at St Colette's Prep School in Girton, near Cambridge, were "shocked" when its owner, private education provider Piscari Learning, announced in March that it was to be closed down this summer. Despite the school's strong academic reputation and 90-year history, the recession had led to a third of its 100 places remaining unfilled.

This week, the Phoenix School opened its doors to a cohort of St Colette's children and staff.

Despite having no experience of the education sector and being repeatedly turned down for funding by banks, the four parents on the school's governing body raised #163;40,000 in private loans and donations, including a "few thousand pounds" from Trinity College, Cambridge. They also found the school a home at nearby Willingham House, a Victorian manor which houses a luxury hotel.

The governors have applied for the Phoenix to become one of the Government's new free schools, and hope it will eventually expand to help tackle the shortage of state primary school places in Cambridge.

St Colette's is one of a growing number of private schools that have been forced to shut because of the economic downturn, with 22 having to close since January last year.

But in this case, ten members of staff have been re-employed by the Phoenix School. The pre-prep, which charges fees of up to #163;7,500 per year, has already filled 16 of its 30 places.

"I have never done anything which has been so exciting and exhilarating," said former St Colette's teacher Jackie Daire, now headteacher at the Phoenix. "We were so shocked when St Colette's closed. The ethos of the school was lovely; it had such a warm feeling. It would have been a shame to let that die."

Chair of governors Tracey Best, whose five-year-old son Adam attends the Phoenix, said: "We've had to learn about running a school from scratch, but we are all from different fields and have something different to bring to the table, be it a knowledge of management, property, planning or IT.

"The parents were initially wary, like tigers defending their cubs, so we had to get across that we could save what they loved so much about St Colette's. What made it special was the teachers themselves - they really cared about the children and were like family. We want to recreate that atmosphere.

"We used to just say hello at the school gate; now we are a strong group of friends and colleagues."

Rory Landman, senior bursar at Trinity College, Cambridge, said: "We do give support to state schools in the area, and we wanted to do something to help. Some of our fellows have children who attended St Colette's, and we have been hearing ... that there is a real shortage of school places for children of that age, so we wanted to give them a leg up."

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