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Storm clouds of recession gather over private schools; EDUCATION.

INDEPENDENT schools in Wales face an increased risk of merger as pupil numbers decline, according to brokers acting as intermediaries.

As the economic downturn continues to claim jobs and close companies, more parents are expected to decide they can no longer afford high school fees.

This has already led to some smaller private schools in other areas of the UK discreetly seeking buyers - and independent schools in Wales could be set to follow.

But brokers are advising schools against making their financial difficulties public for fear of a mass desertion by parents.

Most sales of small independent schools are handled by two brokers, the School Transfer Company and National School Transfer.

Patrick Carter, of National School Transfer, said: "I'm certain it's going to happen one way or another.

"Some parents are not going to be able to pay their fees. Now is the time, at the beginning of term with new fees to be paid, when it will become apparent what problems schools will be facing.

The most vulnerable schools will be smaller and single-sex ones."

Peers Carter, of the School Transfer Company, said he expected more mergers but added that independent schools had in the past proved relatively robust.

"There has been more mergers, with some of the large trusts and companies looking for smaller schools to merge. But this is not due to the credit crunch," he said.

"Parents budget for school fees for a number of years. They don't enter into that agreement unless they can sustain that amount."

Jill Berry, the new president of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA) warned that even well-run private schools could be at risk.

But she welcomed the prospect of schools abandoning an obsession with expensive facilities like music or sports centres and returning to their core values of teaching and learning.

"All businesses will have to think about their costs, the value for money they are providing, and independent schools in that respect are no different," said Berry, who is also head of Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford.

She added: "Some schools, not GSA schools, have got into an arms race of focusing on having to have the music centre or sports pavilion because their competitors do. This could be a positive spin-off of the current financial climate. The things that make us successful are not fantastic facilities."

The recession of the early 1990s saw numbers fall at independent schools and there were several closures and mergers. Among members of the Independent Schools Council, which tends to represent the larger and more prestigious schools in the sector, pupil numbers dropped by more than 11,000 (2.4%) to 464,990 between 1991 and '96, but had bounced back two years later.

Sue Fieldman, regional editor of the Good Schools Guide, said that although the right investor might find "ripe pickings" in the economic downturn, parents and pupils were likely to be the last to know about it.

"Parents can end up feeling very aggrieved because they thought they were signing up to a particular school regime and they end up with another one," she said.

"That's why if parents get wind of a sale or any financial difficulties at the school, many would be out of the door like a shot."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 15, 2009
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