Parents' fury at school merger

THE motto for Kilgraston Roman Catholic boarding school for girls is "act with determination", and it appears the governors will have to do just that if a controversial merger with a much smaller non-denominational rival is to be accepted.

Parents and pupils of the nearby 90-pupil Butterstone prep school are "incandescent" over proposals to join forces with Kilgraston.

The announcement that the 13,000-a-year Perthshire establishment is to close its doors has stunned the school community. Butterstone girls draped banners across banisters protesting at the closure of their idyllic rural mansion near Meigle before senior staff told them to take them down.

Parents have besieged governors with complaints about the lack of consultation and are understood to have offered "hundreds of thousands of pounds" to support the 60-year-old school.

Governors have declined permission for parents to hold an urgent meeting in the school, although they have agreed to meet them on neutral ground if they accept in principle that the decision to transfer the pupils 22 miles to Kilgraston, in Bridge of Earn, is a necessity.

Adrian de Morgan, a property developer and parent, said the "sudden and unilateral decision" was a "travesty".

He said: "The denomination of Kilgraston is at the forefront of many parents’ minds. I have no problems with the Catholic faith, but had I wanted my daughter to attend a Catholic school, I would have sent her there." He said he had received assurances that Catholicism would not be imposed on children coming from Butterstone and that they would have the opportunity to practise their own religion.

However, Mr de Morgan insisted parents were frustrated that they were given no opportunity to avoid merger by helping Butterstone with a recruitment drive or by presenting it with "hundreds of thousands" to improve its facilities.

In an open letter to Richard Taylor, the chairman of the governors, Mr de Morgan warned that unless the board could convince parents that closure was unavoidable, he would call on other parents to boycott the merger and seek support for a legal challenge to the decision.

However, the governors insist that education rather than money was the issue, and cited the better facilities at the larger Kilgraston as the motive to move.

While Butterstone has gone through rocky financial periods, it is in calmer waters now.

As recently as March, it received a glowing report from HM Inspectorate of Education. For nine out of 11 performance indicators it secured the highest ratings of very good or good.

Children are allowed to keep their own pets in school and the website states: "Mrs Malecki has started a cross-stitch club and many girls are to be seen around the school huddled over pieces of fabric with a needle and an array of coloured threads."

It has a track record of securing a high number of places including scholarships at public schools across the UK.

Listing the school’s key strengths, the inspectors said: "It has a very positive ethos characterised by happy, confident pupils."

Another parent, Linda Holt, who moved to Perthshire from London last year because of Butterstone, is "incandescent" that in a few days her daughter will go through the school gates for the last time. She accuses governors of acting "like corporate financiers", destroying the petite prep school to create a larger school at Kilgraston.

Mrs Holt said: "Lots of people love this school, lots of rich people send their children here and work very hard for it.

"Not consulting us is a pretty amazing way for governors to behave."

In an angry letter to Mr Taylor, parent Ewan Walker-Munro accuses the governors of "chasing gimmick facilities" such as a swimming pool or extra gym space.

However, official figures reveal that the roll is just 64 pupils and almost half are in the nursery class. Margaret Whitten, joint head at Butterstone, said that despite its strengths, in the 21st century the school would be stronger after joining forces with its larger counterpart.

Kilgraston, where the headmistress is Juliet Austin, points out that three-quarters of the girls on its roll are not Roman Catholic. The school insists it is a "totally inclusive welcoming school".

Judith Sischy, the director of the Scottish Council for Independent Schools said it was a "challenge" for small schools to survive.

She said: "Merger will enrich rather than dilute the schools. I hope that they get the support from parents that they deserve."