Belmont School closure: ‘Devastated’ pupils left with no school to attend in the New Year as their £21K-a-year institution shuts for good due to spiralling debts after £5M expansion
A top private school has been forced to shut its doors for good after an ambitious £5million expansion bid went catastrophically wrong.
Hundreds of children and parents at fee-paying Belmont School, near Dorking, Surrey, were left ‘devastated’ by the bombshell closure announcement on Tuesday.
The 143-year-old institution, where fees can cost up to £21,840 a year, sparked panic on November 30 when, without warning, it announced it could shut for good, before confirming the closure just 12 days later, with Friday being the last day.
It means some 200 pupils – including more than a dozen Year 11s studying for their GCSEs – could potentially be without a school place in January, with parents now in a desperate race against time to find their children somewhere new to go.
Rosanna Oliver-Black, whose three children go to Belmont – including her eldest daughter in Year 11 – told MailOnline: ‘The kids are devastated. My girl was in tears. As a parent you just want to shelter them from all this but you can’t. The GCSE pupils are in shock and they’re scared.’
Financially-troubled Belmont had been facing a decline in full-fee paying pupils on top of soaring operating costs. In an attempt to turn its fortunes around, a £5million plan to construct a new state-of-the-art school building was green-lit, while Belmont also sought to expand its educational provision from Year 8 up to Year 11.
But the bold bid to build the new Aquileon block was plagued by delays, Belmont said, leading to a bitter legal dispute over costs with Hampshire-based firm Ascia Construction. Instead of being the school’s saviour, the new building ultimately proved the final nail in the coffin for Belmont.
Belmont School, a fee-paying independent, has been forced to close after 143 years after getting into financial difficulties (the school is pictured)
The news comes following a dispute over costs for its new £5million Aquileon building (pictured) which led to a legal clash between Belmont and Hampshire firm Ascia Construction
Granted planning permission in February 2020, the block – which included six new senior classrooms, an ICT suite, two new art rooms and a performing arts space – was due to open at the end of 2022. But setbacks meant it wasn’t unveiled until June of this year.
Meanwhile, during this time financial records show Belmont’s debt ballooned from £1,262,082 in July 2020 to £4,433,771 two years later. No figures have been released for 2023.
On July 6, 2023, the school’s longstanding headteacher, Helen Skrine retired after 17 years. Her replacement, Marc Broughton started in August of this year and announced the school’s closure just four months later.
In a statement, Belmont told parents: ‘Despite efforts to improve and extend its education service, Belmont has been operating below where it should be for budgetary purposes. Compounding factors have taken their toll, such as, deteriorating affordability, falling numbers of full fee-paying parents, higher interest rates and higher operating costs.’
It added: ‘A significant eight-month delay on the completion of the Aquileon building not only further depleted the school’s finances but also made marketing the school particularly difficult both to recruit new pupils and potential investors in the school.
‘In addition to this, in recent weeks the school has found itself in dispute over final costs with the construction firm, which has resulted in a claim being taken to adjudication and subsequent litigation.’
MailOnline understands a rescue package is now being developed by current head Mr Broughton to try and find Year 11s urgent new places. However, parents have said they remain in the dark about what this package could look like.
Local Surrey independent schools are in talks to see how they can assist, while Belmont teachers – who have now lost their jobs, with those living on site also losing their homes – have reportedly stepped up and offered tuition in the evenings, according to parents.
About 200 pupils attend the school, near Dorking in Surrey, with parents now facing a mad scramble to find them new places to study
The project to build the new school block was meant to be completed by the end of 2022 but was delayed by months and finished in June 2023 (the block is pictured under construction)
The effort was part of Belmont school’s bid to expand in size and accommodation more pupils
Mrs Oliver-Black said her eldest daughter was now in education ‘limbo’, without a school to go to in the new year. She added: ‘There’s a plan underfoot but it’s all very rushed. There was a discussion about repeating Year 11 but the resounding decision was that that cannot happen.
‘The headmaster has been amazing. He really has. He is trying to put plans in place where somehow the Year 11s can stay together… We don’t know exactly what these plans look like.’
Despite an 11th-hour scramble by parents and staff to try and save it, Mr Broughton said Belmont would have to shut. ‘We have worked tirelessly to exhaust all avenues to find an answer to this situation, but the Governing body, Save Belmont team and school leaders have sadly been unable to come up with a viable solution,’ he added.
One 45-year-old mother said her two children, 11 and 13, had been left ‘distraught’ by the news the school was going to close, which came ‘completely out of the blue’.
‘It was complete shock. The children thought it was a joke,’ the parent told MailOnline. ‘The children’s friends started ringing them. They were absolutely devastated and floods of tears.
‘It was just a feeling of total disbelief. It came completely out of the blue. We opened the email and we were just numb.’
The mother, who asked not to be named, said the school had been ‘transformational’ for her 13-year-old daughter, building back the youngster’s confidence.
Pictured is the work starting on the new facility, which Belmont said it was investing £5m in
The project to build the Aquileon led to a legal row over costs between the school and building firm Ascia, Belmont said in a statement to parents
The final message to parents, on Tuesday, announced the school would close on Friday
She added she had managed to find a last-minute place for her two children at another school in the county – but said many parents had not been so lucky.
‘I know children who don’t have a place and parents are now tearing their hair out trying to scramble to find one,’ she said.
‘Some schools have been bringing their admin teams in at weekends to try and help us. It’s a mad rush.’
Sir Paul Beresford, Conservative MP for Mole Valley, was ‘shocked’ by the news and is now in crisis talks with Surrey County Council’s education chief, Councillor Clare Curran to see if students could be taken by state schools.
‘This situation is grim,’ Sir Paul added. ‘It’s going to be a very tough few weeks and for those sitting their exams, it could possibly be a disaster.’
Andrew Baker, chairman of governors, was ‘deeply saddened’ and said: ‘This difficult decision has been made by the board of governors following a tough few years for the school and the independent school sector in general.
‘Sadly, we have not been able to find a solution to save Belmont School. The rescue plan that was actioned by the Belmont community to try to save the school was a clear demonstration of the incredible spirit and community within the Belmont family and we are indebted to the efforts of so many.’
Repeated requests by MailOnline to Belmont and Ascia Construction for further comment were not answered.
In a blog post on their website about the construction of the Aquileon building, Ascia said there had been ‘multiple logistical challenges’ during the project.
Source: Read Full Article