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Victory for teachers given three days to close school

Tribunal awards staff maximum pay after hearing the owner flew in by helicopter to shut school down

The acting head of one of England's most historic independent schools suspected something was amiss before the blue helicopter landed on the front lawn.

Rosemary Cuff had turned up to work on a Tuesday morning at St Elphin's School, a 160-year-old boarding school in Darley Dale, Derbyshire, to find that the power company had switched off the heating again.

Describing the incident, which occured two years ago, she said: "The telephone had been off; the power had been off; the milkman was knocking at the door because he hadn't been paid. We realised things were going pear-shaped."

Kevin Burke, the construction engineer whose company had bought the school for a reported pound;2.4m, emerged from the helicopter and presented her with a piece of paper. It declared the 72-pupil school closed with immediate effect. Mrs Cuff refused to sign.

After talks, Mr Burke agreed to let the school operate till the Friday to allow the teachers, without pay, to try and find new schools and accommodation for their pupils. The boarders came from as far afield as Ghana, Dubai and Hong Kong. Others were the children of British military personnel serving abroad.

On Friday March 11, 2005, teachers and children held a chapel service to mark the closure of the school whose distinguished alumni includes Richmal Crompton, the author of the Just William books, and the novelist Penelope Mortimer. The prayers were drowned out by locksmiths and bulldozers outside.

The companies through which Mr Burke had bought and managed the school were quickly declared insolvent and liquidated. The site is now being developed into a retirement home.

This week, the Employment Tribunal awarded the maximum 90 days' pay to the 58 staff, who had continued to teach pupils in a nearby church hall.

Because the companies were liquidated, the estimated pound;250,000-plus payment is to be made by the Redundancy Payments Office from government coffers.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the owners had broken the law and kicked the "loyal and valiant" staff in the teeth.

"No one should be allowed to take over a school and treat the staff and pupils like this," she said. "We want all independent schools to agree minimum employment standards to safeguard the rights of their staff."

Lynn Howson, whose 15-year-old daughter Ellie had been sitting a GCSE textiles practical exam when the helicopter landed, said the pupils had been devastated by the sudden closure. Another mother, Cathy Chrystal, attended St Elphin's and then sent her children there. "I'm pleased the staff are getting something. They worked for nothing at the end," she said.

But the battle continues. Rosemary Cuff, 62, said she was still seeking more than pound;2,000 in pension contributions that Mr Burke's company had not transferred to the Teachers' Pension Scheme. Others were in the same position.

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