Debt is driving merger plans for top city schools, claim opponents

Andrew Robinson PARENTS at two of Yorkshire's top independent schools have accused headteachers of misleading them over merger proposals.

A campaign group set up to oppose the merging of Leeds Girls' High and the all-boys Leeds Grammar School has claimed a "hidden agenda" lies behind the plans.

The group, calling itself No Merger in 2007, says the case for a merger put forward jointly by the schools "makes no educational sense".

Under the plans, announced in June, a new senior school would be sited at Alwoodley Gates, currently home of the boys' school, and juniors would go to the Headingley Lane site, currently home to the girls' school.

The junior school would be fully co-educational while the seniors, aged 11 to 16, would be taught in single-sex classrooms. But the merger opponents – which headteachers say amount to only a fifth of parents – have gone through the headteachers' arguments for a merger and concluded they are "distinctly contrived".

A spokesman for the group, who has children at the girls' school, said the "weakness" of the merger case led parents to believe that other factors were at work.

The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, concluded that the merger was driven by a need for Leeds Grammar School (LGS) to reduce large debts incurred from a building programme.

"The merger would seem to be an ideal way to solve the financial situation at LGS, but Leeds Girls' High School (LGHS) has to be sacrificed, or consumed, in the process," said the parent.

"Given the weakness of the other aspects of the case for merger with respect to LGHS, it is difficult to avoid seeing this financial factor (the debt) as the true driving force."

He dismissed all the evidence in favour of merger as "flawed", including the claim that in future there will be too few pupils because of falling birth rates.

"The economic performance of Leeds is of far more relevance to the future of LGHS and LGS than these demographic projections."

A graph showing future population falls, given to parents at recent consultation meetings, "proved to be flawed and meaningless by statisticians", he said.

He urged governors to reject the merger plans when they meet in January.

Last night headteachers at both the schools denied the merger was driven by financial considerations.

Girls' school headteacher Sue Fishburn claimed 80 per cent of parents are pro-merger, based on letters she had seen.

The merger made sense in the light of declining numbers of pupils and the "long-term benefits of co-education."

The grammar school's debt repayment was "on schedule", she said, and there was no truth in the rumour that the merger would lead to selling off school land at Headingley.

Leeds Grammar School head Dr Mark Bailey thinks around 20 per cent of parents at both schools opposed the merger based on "very low" numbers of written responses to consultation.

His school had opened its financial books to girls' school governors, he said, and it was "preposterous" to say the merger was a way to to "bail us out".