Former governor at Walden School says ‘essential information’ was allegedly withheld from prospective buyer

PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 May 2018

Walden School in April, 2018.

Walden School in April, 2018.

Archant

A former governor at Walden School who resigned in opposition to decisions being made by the board prior to its closure has said one bid to save the school allegedly failed due to ‘essential information’ being withheld.

Douglas Kent, a current committee member of the Old Scholars’ Association, presented a report at a special general meeting (SGM) of the Friends’ School Saffron Walden Old Scholars’ Association on May 19.

Mr Kent confirmed that pupil numbers had steadily declined over many years for a variety of reasons and a “body blow” came in February, 2017, when a bank demanded the school commit to a two-year financial turnaround, instead of the three-year plan put in place the previous autumn.

Mr Kent emphasised that this did not mean closure of the school was inevitable and he said there had been many positive changes taking place at the school in recent years.

Those present at the meeting heard that a decision was made in early 2017 to market the school discreetly to potential purchasers or merger partners.

The two governors who left the board, one of whom was Mr Kent, did so in April, 2017, when it was decided to accept a resulting offer from the Department for Education (DfE) that was “merely tentative” and for acquiring the premises in a vacant state and without a commitment to continue it as a private school.

The meeting was told that this meant, therefore, the board rejected other credible bids to purchase the school as a going concern or to facilitate a sale and leaseback arrangement.

Mr Kent said accepting the DfE offer “made absolutely no sense” and said at the meeting: “It was the one offer that necessitated closure of the school, and we were far from certain that it could proceed, particularly given the risk of government policy changes after the pending General Election.”

On July 13, the DfE confirmed it would not be proceeding with the sale. The school had closed on July 7 and most of the 135 staff were made redundant.

Mr Kent said later opportunities to retain the site for educational use were also missed.

An offer from the Diagrama Foundation that was backed by a parent-led group was accepted in principle but Mr Kent said it failed amid accusations that essential information was withheld from those attempting to rescue the school and that they encountered “much obfuscation”.

In December, 2017, Mr Kent said an offer for the site to establish a new, independent Quaker-inspired school, Gibson House School, fell through after the administrators’ costs “sky-rocketed to unanticipated levels and pushed the purchase price way beyond what was affordable to few but property developers”.

A spokesman for the administrators Grant Thornton said: “We strongly refute this suggestion. A sale with an educational provider was originally agreed but they subsequently withdrew, citing a lack of long-term viability.

“No other funded offers were received from educational providers which could have covered all of the estimated creditor claims plus administration costs, before taking account of any remuneration for the administrators.

“Further, the administrators had no motivation for selling the school to a developer rather than an educational provider and the only fee proposal provided by us was the one that was subsequently agreed by the creditors which remains in place today.”

Grant Thornton confirmed to the Reporter that they would be extending the administration for another 12 months.

The governing board was contacted for comment, but failed to respond.

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