York's Minster School becomes latest casualty among independent schools shuttered for good by coronavirus

Leading figures in independent education have warned that the sector has been plunged into turmoil due to coronavirus as York Minster announced it is set to close its preparatory school amid a multi-million pound funding shortfall.

The school, which dates back to 627AD, is the latest in a line of independent educational settings to close its doors due to the pandemic, with many admitting that the pandemic has accentuated existing financial difficulties.

Parents and staff were told of proposals to close the Minster School at the end of the summer term by the Dean of York, the Right Rev Dr Jonathan Frost, via Zoom calls and letters yesterday.

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

Empty streets at near York Minster. Photo: PA

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.

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

Reports last month suggested up to 30 per cent of independent schools could go bust due to the crisis, with many under severe financial pressure before the pandemic.

Independent schools including the Mount School in York and Queen Margaret’s School at Escrick Park reported losses last year, but insisted there were plans in place to recover.

David Woodgate, the chief executive of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association, said last month he was aware of 15 school closures already, most of which were already in trouble.

Yesterday, Dr Frost 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.”

There are no plans to “sell the family silver” - the school buildings - to provide a “short term fix”, Dr Frost added.

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 Minster School are from abroad.

The Independent Schools Association (ISA) - which represents 541 independent schools across the country - said it often put schools struggling with their finances in touch with investors.

The ISA’s chief executive, Neil Roskilly, said he had not seen as many closures due to coronavirus as might have been expected, but it was the uncertainty that was causing issues.

He said: “The thing with the virus has been it’s picked off the schools that were not doing particularly well anyway, such as Ashdown House, the Prime Minister’s school, they had not been doing very well for a number of years.”

The preparatory school in East Sussex, where Boris Johnson and his siblings were educated, revealed this week it would also be closing its doors due to the pandemic.

Mr Roskilly added: “We know the demand overseas is still there, but it’s just the uncertainty.”

And he said the quarantine announcement from the Government would make things more difficult, although he said many boarding houses would be able to cope and isolate arriving students away from others for two weeks.

While the chief executive of the Independent Schools Council said it was “impossible to predict with accuracy” the impact coronavirus would have on the sector.

Julie Robinson said: “Of course it is already affecting independent schools like all SMEs and also the livelihoods of fee-paying parents. Much depends upon how long restrictions remain in place.”

Labour MP for York Central Rachael Maskell said: “Coronavirus is taking a serious toll on all aspects of York life, and the closure of the Minister School is another example of how grants and loans have been insufficient to protect the city.”