For 120 years it has been providing an education for young ladies, brought up in the Edinburgh tradition of “inspirational and dynamic” teaching. Its motto, Fortiter Vivamus — Let us live bravely, produced generations of girls who went on to successful careers, benefiting from the single-sex education made famous in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It was, as one parent put it, the kind of place that was more than just a school, it was a community.
However, St Margaret’s School for Girls in the heart of the city, closed its doors for the last time on Tuesday after the governors abruptly annnounced that the school was heading for insolvency. At an emotional prizegiving ceremony and concert, parents and pupils assembled for the last time to mourn its demise, and to rail against those they blamed for the closure. The board of governors was asked not to attend — “in case someone thumped them”, as one mother put it.
The school, which was founded in 1890, had a teaching staff of 100 and had been struggling with an annual deficit of around £500,000, compounded by a falling roll, which had declined steeply from 800 to around 350. However a number of Chinese boarders had enrolled for the next academic year and the new head, appointed in 2009,, was extremely popular within the school community and the situation was perceived to be improving.
Many of those attending wept openly as the school song was belted out for the last time. The head girl, Arusa Qureshi, was applauded loudly as she quoted from Winston Churchill: “It is courage that counts. We may not have saved St Margaret’s but we did not go down without a fight.” After her speech, Qureshi left the podium and picked up an electric guitar to accompany her classmates in a version of ‘Your Song’ by Elton John.
Yesterday the school stood locked and empty. The glittering trophies, cups and quaichs temporarily handed to the girls for their achievements are now officially the property of the liquidators KPMG and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which called time on the private school almost three weeks ago.
After the concert, one tear-stained mother clutching her ten-year-old daughter, said she was “very, very angry”. “I feel that my daughter has been robbed.” Like several others, the mother, who did not want to be named, paid about £10,000 fees in advance for the academic year 2010-11 in late April. She stands to lose all of it.
“I am furious that they were encouraging parents to pay in advance when they were in this situation,” she said. “But what is worse is what this means for the children.”
Renny Tate said his 15-year-old daughter had phoned in about a school trip but found herself talking to the liquidators who told her the school was closing down and her trip was cancelled. “She is terribly upset. The families had no warning.”
Valery Devlin, who was part of a last-ditch attempt by parents to rescue the school, said it was “like a family”. “These are the people who have been watching my children grow up, I have no family up here, the parents are my social network, this is my community. I am devastated.”
She blamed “bully-boy tactics by the banks” which she felt had put the governors under pressure. “It is an unpaid role but it does carry some liability for the schools’ debts.”
Staff pay has been stopped and some teachers voiced anger because they will not be receiving holiday pay, and because they said they were threatened with summary dismissal by the liquidators if they went on a demonstration by the Save St Margaret’s campaign.
While the school’s problems stemmed from a decline in the popularity of single sex education, falling property prices meant that on paper the loss-making school’s assets no longer balanced its debts.
“The head and her team have made a Herculean effort and numbers had started to increase for the first time in six years,” said Ms Devlin. “I think if the board had taken some hard decisions sooner, the school would still be open.”
Yesterday the head teacher, Jennifer McGhee, told pupils, staff and parents that they could “leave with heads held high, knowing you were part of a wonderful organisation”.