York's Minster School set to close after Minster suffers 'catastrophic' loss of income during lockdown

York Minster is set to close its preparatory school due to a “catastrophic loss of visitor income” to the tune of more than £5m during the coronavirus lockdown.

York Minster has suffered a 'catastrophic loss of income' during the pandemic. Picture: James Hardisty

Parents and staff were told of proposals to close the school, which dates back to 627AD, at the end of the summer term by the Dean of York, the Right Rev Dr Jonathan Frost, via Zoom calls and letters today.

He said the shortfall of £5.2m compared to budgeted income of £9.4, was a “shock to the system” that was only set to be compounded by a future drop in visitor numbers compared to 2019 levels.

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The school had been operating with just 95 pupils out of a capacity of 180, and required a £750,000 annual financial injection from the Chapter of York, the Minster’s governing body, to meet its deficit.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, opens the newly converted Early Years facilities at the Minster School in 2017. Picture Tony Johnson

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Dean Jonathan said closing the school was a difficult decision but a “courageous one, and the right one”.

He said: “This is the right decision, in light of the very serious financial crisis facing the Minster. We will come through that crisis, but only by making difficult decisions like this. There will undoubtedly be more to come.

“Even before Covid and the closure of the Minster, the Minster School was in a deficit position but there was a plan and an energy, and a commitment to invest. There was a new headteacher and we were beginning to see pupil numbers go in the right direction.

“It has always been an important part of Minster life but the school is no longer sustainable in a long term way. Our focus is very much on supporting our staff at this difficult time, and on our pupils, and ensuring that by closing at the end of term, which we propose to do, that will give parents the chance to start the new school year in their new schools.”

The Dean of York, Rt Rev Jonathan Frost. Picture: James Hardisty

Visitor income is “crucial” to the financial performance of the Chapter of York and its ability to continue funding all of its activities - including the school.

There are no plans to “sell the family silver” - the school buildings - to provide a “short term fix”, Dean Jonathan said.

A formal consultation process for staff and their representatives will begin today, and the school will meet with parents to discuss their options and help them to find new school places, the Chapter said.

The announcement comes at a worrying time for the independent school sector nationally, with parents demanding fees’ for the closure period are returned and fears over whether pupils from abroad will be able to return any time soon. None of the pupils at the school are from abroad.

Dean Jonathan said that Chapter had planned to continue its investment of £750,000 in each of the next three years to create breathing space for the school to rise out of its financial deficit and to recruit new pupils, but this was no longer possible given the extreme drop in income due to the Minster’s closure.

He said: “With a £5.2m shortfall in 2020 and no return of visitors to 2019 levels in the short to medium term, such investment is no longer a viable option.

“Intelligence drawn from the wider independent preparatory school sector suggests that the Minster School will be far from unique in facing this kind of dilemma.”

Dean Jonathan said the situation was “desperately sad” for pupils who may not get to see their friends again due to the phased re-opening of schools, but that it was planning some sort of gathering to make sure their time at the school “ended well”.

Around half of the school’s pupils were chorister at the Minster, and their siblings.

The tradition of educating the Minster choristers is set to continue, with a new partnership with York private school St Peter’s. Chorister will continue to be trained at the Minster’s Department of Music.

Chair of Governors at St Peter’s School, William Woolley said: “The Minster with its wonderful choral singing is hugely important not only for York but also nationally and internationally.

“St Peter's School is proud to become the Choir School of the Minster and to continue the excellent education of the choristers after the sad announcement.

“We will now have an important addition to our already world class capabilities at the same time protecting this great York cultural tradition.”

Head Master of St Peter’s, Jeremy Walker added: “I am saddened that The Minster School is closing but look forward to welcoming choristers and their families to St Peter’s. They will be joining a school which nurtures and celebrates excellence, whether that be in music, academics, sport or all the other opportunities we share with our pupils.

“They and future generations of choristers will be a great addition to the life of St Peter's.”

The director of music at York Minster, Robert Sharpe, said: “The Minster School can trace its origins back to AD 627 when St Paulinus founded the Minster and a school for its choristers.

“This school went on to become what is now St Peter’s School. The very sad decision to close the present Minster School is set alongside this excellent opportunity for our choristers to continue to be educated together a short distance away, and for the Minster’s mission and choral tradition to continue to flourish for years to come.”