After 85 years, end of assisted places scheme and fall in numbers of boarders forces independent to close

ONE of Scotland's leading independent schools, Keil School in Dumbarton, is to close at the end of June, largely as a result of loss of revenue from the Government's ending of the assisted places scheme and a downturn in the number of pupils choosing to board.

Headmaster Tom Smith said that other contributory factors to the decision to close the 85-year-old school included a reduction in the number of fee allowances being paid by the armed forces and major companies; the increasing costs of curriculum changes, particularly related to the new Higher Still programme; and the upkeep of the school's infrastructure.

He said that, in the past few years, the Mackinnon Macneill Trust, which runs the school, had been handling an increasing number of requests for financial assistance from both present and prospective parents.

In the past couple of years, the trust has had to inject #200,000 to keep the school running, in addition to #200,000 to make up a deficit. The phasing out of the assisted places scheme was expected to cost a further #200,000 over the next two to three years. The school's annual turnover is around #1.2m.

Mr Andrew Mackinnon, chairman of the trust, said: ''It is undoubtedly an extremely emotional time for everyone associated with the school. However, the decision to close the school was not taken lightly and we have been fighting to keep the school running economically for a number of years now.

''Given the purpose of the trust, it is important that losses were stemmed and funds were being used to further the education of children - not being sunk into the upkeep of buildings, equipment, and grounds. The trust has been monitoring the situation very carefully and has done everything in its power to keep the school open.''

Mr Mackinnon said the school would probably be sold and the proceeds used by the trust to continue its work in a different way.

Mrs Judith Sischy, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said: ''I actually think that Keil is unique.

''It is small to start with, offers primary and secondary, offers day and boarding places, and does get lots of assisted places. It has a very commendable history of assisted places, has a full curriculum of Standard Grade, Highers, and probably CSYS too, and offers a massive range of extra-curricular activity.

''I don't think it is socially or economically viable to keep all that up - it is a tremendous challenge for a small school, plus it is not in a main city. Yet all these factors which have mitigated against its viability are all factors which were its strength. Nowadays, it costs a lot of money to offer choices like that.''

Although the headmaster of Loretto School at Musselburgh, Mr Keith Budge, resigned recently citing strained staff relations, he admitted that the school had been forced into two redundancies recently, prompting speculation that perhaps some independent schools are beginning to struggle financially.

Mrs Sischy said that other independent schools had not been affected by the removal of the assisted places scheme to the same extent.

However, she admitted that all boarding schools were having to spread their wings and look for international students.

Keil, a former boys' school which went co-educational in 1989, has a total of 174 senior boarding and day pupils in Dumbarton, with a further 45 junior pupils in Helensburgh. It employs 52 people (12 part-time), including 33 teaching staff, who will be made redundant in June.

Mr Smith, who took up the post of headmaster at Keil two years ago, said that at one time, close to one in three pupils were at the school on assisted places, but with the phasing out of the scheme, the proportion had fallen to one in four. While at one time nearly all pupils were boarders, the boarding level had fallen consistently over the past few years to around a third.

''There is a general trend of a decline in boarding. A number of schools have been doing exactly as I have been - looking at foreign markets. A good number have visited China and a number have got Russia in mind,'' Mr Smith said.

After this summer, Keil pupils will have the option of either entering local authority schools or applying to one of the other independent schools in the area - most likely either Lomond School in Helensburgh, or one of the independent schools in Glasgow.

Dumbarton Presbytery last night expressed its regret and ''sympathy to the pupils and staff whose education and careers are now put in jeopardy''.

School chaplain, the Rev Christine Liddell, said: ''I would pay tribute to the sensitive way headmaster Tom Smith has handled a very emotional situation in his care for pupils, staff and parents. They are assured of our support and prayers.''

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said: ''All pupils at the school who have an assisted place will have the right to transfer their place to another participating school.

''The scheme was not designed to support schools but to support pupils. Schools should not be financially dependent upon the scheme.''

Mr Brian Monteith, Tory Education spokesman, said: ''There were always going to be innocent victims of Labour's dogmatic stance on repealing assisted places.

''Keil School has a proud record and has made a significant contribution to education in the Dumbarton and Argyll areas. Its loss will be felt by many FPs and former teaching staff.''

Ms Nicola Sturgeon, Shadow Education Minister, said: ''I think it is regrettable when any school closes but obviously if schools are independent, then part of that is to be financially viable in their own right.''