Angry parents in High Court bid to halt Casterton-Sedbergh schools' merger (From The Westmorland Gazette)
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Angry parents in High Court bid to halt Casterton-Sedbergh schools' merger
FURIOUS parents fighting the merger of Casterton and Sedbergh schools will take their battle to London’s High Court tomorrow.
Newly-formed Casterton Parents Ltd wants the start date of March 11 delayed for two weeks and for the school’s governors to stand down while a temporary board reviews how the ‘secret’ deal was reached.
Parents are angry they were not consulted over last week’s announcement and hope a court order will allow the new board time to investigate other options for the 190-year-old school.
Stephen Ellis, the group’s lawyer, said if the governors did not agree to the request, an injunction would be sought tomorrow in a bid to legally force them to.
The parents labelled the merger a ‘takeover’ and threatened to remove their daughters from the all-girl school, near Kirkby Lonsdale.
However, some parents have begun speaking out in favour of the move, claiming Casterton Preparatory School could close without the merger.
Meanwhile, donations from as far away as China, Africa and America are pouring in to fund the opposition campaign.
Mr Ellis, whose daughter attends Casterton, said: “The school is a charity. The parents and children are the beneficiaries of that charity. They have not been consulted on the future of the school. The governors have agreed to a merger in secret.
“The majority of parents chose Casterton over Sedbergh and do not want their children to be forced to attend Sedbergh.”
Mr Ellis said he had sought advice from specialist barristers and believed the parents’ group could halt the merger.
Colin Tomlinson, chairman of Casterton governors, faced angry calls to resign at a meeting to answer parents’ questions on Friday.
But he told them he was ‘standing firm’ over the merger and was jeered after revealing he would be joint chairman of governors at the merged school.
Mr Tomlinson was said to be unavailable for comment this week.
Casterton Parents Ltd spokeswoman Sarah Short said the group included two-thirds of all Casterton parents.
“Parents want the pause button pressing,” said Mrs Short, who has two daughters aged 16 and 11 at the school.
“All we are saying is: ‘Please will you delay so we can have a look at this process’. It’s all been done in a cloak and dagger fashion. We want to know what discussions have taken place and with whom.”
She explained that her daughters had been ‘very worried’ since the announcement, adding: “They can’t talk about anything else. They won’t be going to Sedbergh. I don’t have a problem with Sedbergh, it’s just not the school I chose for my daughters.”
Former Casterton pupil Katherine Evans, whose five-year-old daughter Isabella is now a student there, said she was ‘confident’ the legal challenge would succeed.
“We want to find out the truth,” she said. “We’re standing together and not backing down.”
Sarah Ibbetson said her 12-year-old daughter Lucy, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, was heartbroken.
Mrs Ibbetson, whose parents help her to meet the school’s annual £15,000 fees, said: “It’s got to be one of the worst weeks we have ever known. My daughter has struggled in school all her life but she loves it at Casterton. I have never felt so angry.”
But parents with children at Casterton Prep School spoke out in favour of the merger.
David Ellwood said: “Pupil numbers have been falling dramatically. Parents raised concerns two years ago and the school tried to improve its marketing but there wasn’t the interest.”
Father-of-two Adam Key added: “If it doesn’t happen I suspect the school won’t be there in a year. It’s a terrific opportunity. The facilities that are going to be on offer are going to be absolutely unparalleled.”
Andrew Fleck, Sedbergh School headmaster, said the merger was ‘progressing as planned’.
“Friday’s meeting was difficult and I understand why parents and children at Casterton are upset,” he said.
“I’m determined to help them in a difficult situation. We are doing everything possible to accommodate wishes and bring pupils and schools together successfully.”
The merger was announced amid falling pupil numbers at Casterton and Sedbergh’s wish to expand its junior school.
Senior pupils at Casterton would transfer to Sedbergh, while Sedbergh Junior School would relocate to a new prep school at Casterton.
Consultation with staff started this week amid union speculation 20 to 100 jobs could go.
Update: The Gazette received the following statement from Colin Tomlinson, chairman of governors at Casterton School, at 11.32am today.
"We have been placed on notice of potential court action brought on behalf of some of the parents of Casterton School who are apparently opposed to the merger of Casterton School with Sedbergh School.
"Our lawyers have requested details of the basis upon which such action is being threatened but have, to date, received no details.
"The merger between Casterton and Sedbergh is in the interests of both establishments and any action brought will be vigorously defended.
"The governors of Casterton have at all times acted, and will continue to act, in the best interests of the whole of Casterton community - pupils, parents and staff alike.
"We are firmly of the opinion that the merger represents the only viable option for the preservation of the educational and pastoral standards that Casterton has been delivering and will ensure that the first rate education and extra-curricular opportunities which Casterton pupils enjoy will continue without interruption for future generations to come.
"The welfare of the pupils and their education has been at the forefront of our minds."