THE Prebendal School in Chichester, which educates the cathedral’s choristers, is a potential target for takeover by Chinese education groups.
In the past decade, about 17 British independent schools have been bought by Chinese companies, some headed by individuals with close links to the ruling Communist Party, but the reported interest in Chichester’s Prebendal School is thought to be the first time that they have turned their attention to a school connected to the Church (Comment,16 April).
Chinese investment in Britain’s private education system has raised fears in some quarters that it is an attempt to manipulate and influence the country’s ruling elite. Also, China’s policies on religious minorities, especially the Uighurs, have caused concern, but the Independent Schools Council has described the interest as a welcome source of investment for often financially struggling establishments.
This week, the head of the Prebendal School, Louise Salmond Smith, declined to deny that takeover talks had taken place. In a brief statement, she said: “As a popular independent school with a long and established reputation for excellence, the school is subject to periodic approaches for inward investment which, for commercial confidentiality, it does not comment on externally. Please note that we will not be commenting further.”
Accounts submitted last August to the Charity Commission show that the school made a loss in 2019 of £129,886. It had made a small surplus in 2016 of £140,000. The school’s main source of income is fees and, in their report to the Charity Commission, the governors wrote: “The Coronavirus pandemic has made future fee and other revenue streams less certain and in the short term the school needs external financial support to secure its future.”
It adds that an uncertain economic outlook could mean fewer parents could afford the fees. “The Governors and the school’s management have taken measures to reduce costs including reducing the number of staff employed. Despite this, the latest projections show that the school will require a degree of external financial support to provide working capital for the next year and beyond.
“The Governors are in the process of exploring a number of options to secure the required financial support and are confident of success.”
Annual fees for the approximately 130 pupils range from £8850 in the pre-preparatory school to £23,700 for boarders. A cathedral scholarship reduces choristers’ fees to £11,850.
Although the school has close links with the cathedral — the Dean of Chichester, the Very Revd Stephen Waine, is the chair of governors, and the cathedral Chancellor, Canon Daniel Inman, is also a governor — it is a separate charity, and the Chapter does not comment on its financial position.
In a joint statement, two Conservative MPs whose constituencies neighbour Chichester condemned the increasing Chinese interest in British education.
Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) and Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) are both members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, and have recently been blacklisted by China for their criticism of the regime. They said: “One of the most worrying aspects of the growing global reach of the Chinese regime has been the influence it has been buying in British schools and university campuses, not least through the sinister promotion of Confucius Institutes.
“Given the complete intolerance of free speech and freedom to worship that has become the hallmark of Chinese rule, in Tibet and Xinjian in particular, a Chinese takeover of a prestigious British school with Christian faith at its heart such as the Chichester Prebendal School should set alarm bells ringing, and must be challenged.”
It is understood that the prospective buyers are also interested in neighbouring properties on the city’s central West Street, including the former House of Fraser department store.
The Prebendal School is the oldest school in West Sussex, with its origins in the 11th century, when a song school was created for the newly established cathedral. It was re-founded in 1497 by Bishop Edward Storey, who attached it to the Prebend of Highleigh in Chichester Cathedral
Last year, The Daily Telegraph named the school as one of the best-value independent schools in the country. Its pupils have gone on to Eton College, Benenden School, Lancing College, and Charterhouse School.