Chinese form investment partnership with Wisbech Grammar School will see 'brand' expand into mainland China
PUBLISHED: 18:49 31 January 2020 | UPDATED: 09:51 01 February 2020
Chinese investors have entered into a partnership with Wisbech Grammar School in a move that will secure its 600-year-old history, guarantee its future and provide additional cash for bursaries for state school pupils.
Headmaster Chris Staley revealed that the school - but not the buildings - have been taken on by Access Education, an Anglo/Chinese body that aims to make Wisbech Grammar its flagship UK entity.
Run by Chinese nationals who have been based in the UK for the past 15 to 20 years, Access Education will provide the seeds for the expansion of the grammar school 'brand' into mainland China.
Under the terms of the agreement, a new charity under a board of trustees will oversee the freehold of the school and its associated buildings and land. Access has set up a limited company to run the school with the agreement that any profit/surplus is ploughed back and will be used to increase bursaries and upgrade existing facilities.
Mr Staley said: "It has been a rollercoaster ride, but we are phenomenally excited for the future and it will be good for Wisbech." Like other independent schools Wisbech Grammar has faced financial challenges that emanated from the removal in 1997 of the assisted places scheme. Mr Staley said Wisbech, like other independent schools, face threats that began in 1997 with the removal of the assisted places scheme.
But there remained the possible loss of charitable status, the constant threat of "what are you doing for social mobility" and changes to VAT. Post 1997, he said, the numbers at the school have dropped from a peak of 750 to a low point of 500, today there is 580- which now includes 20 Chinese students who have become their first boarders.
Under Access that number will rise to a maximum of 50 or 60 and the school will look to build or rent additional accommodation close by. "But the market for independent schools has changed," he said.
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And in Wisbech, with its heavy dependency on agriculture, it has meant looking to a wider catchment area for pupils: where once one bus brought children in from King's Lynn there are now 11 buses bringing students from up to 20 or 25 miles away to the school. Two years ago, the school authorised a £350,000 review - that has concluded with the sale to Access.
"As numbers started to reduce, we still made a little surplus, which had to be spent in some form or shape on the school's objectives," he said. "One of the key attractions for me coming to the school was provision of bursaries - I would not be where I am without one."
With the risk of not being able to sustain them - 18 per cent of pupils enjoy some form of financial help and in exceptional cases get all their fees paid. - the school felt change was required. "Bursaries can be life changing for many," said Mr Staley.
Means tested bursaries totalled £860,000 last year and represented 14 per cent of the school's gross fees. They provided support for 115 pupils, 11 of them receiving 100 per cent of their fees and 28 getting a 75 per cent remission.
The head said that he was aware that "75 kids from Wisbech jump on a bus each day to go to Spalding Grammar School (state run) - if I can talk to my governors and take away the cost of some of them doing that it will do more for social mobility than ever before. It is a win, win on both sides".
Mr Staley said a sustainable model was explored before Access were appointed. He said Access "fully support the clear vision" set out by the governors and the plan is to make Wisbech Grammar School "the banner underneath which their plans for educational projects in China are launched".
He said: "These may include setting up Wisbech Grammar kindergartens, Wisbech Grammar learning centres and UK style sixth forms for Chinese children. The investment into the school will strengthen our position regionally and nationally which in turn will strength Access Education's presence in the Chinese education market." Mr Staley said Access are putting Wisbech Grammar "at the centre of their educational group in the UK". He said whereas for some in this country public schools had become a 'pariah' for the rest of the world "we are the gold standard in education". Included in the arrangement is a guarantee to limit the number of international students at Wisbech, to guarantee existing bursaries and scholarships, and a 'get out' clause in five years if the governors so decide. Mr Staley added: "One of the things we are doing is working in partnership with more and more local primary schools. "This deal keeps us light on our feet and away from central government control. "Our focus is solely on widening access to pupils in Wisbech - and this will ensure we can."