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Troubled Heathside Preparatory School acquired by national firm on last day of term

PUBLISHED: 09:34 25 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:04 25 July 2019

The upper school in West Heath Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

The upper school in West Heath Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Heathside Preparatory School has been bought by a new education provider after 26 years of unchanged leadership.

The main school site in New End, where preparations are under way for a fresh start in September. Picture: Polly HancockThe main school site in New End, where preparations are under way for a fresh start in September. Picture: Polly Hancock

On Thursday, July 11, the leases and assets of the 550-pupil private school in Hampstead were formally acquired by UK-based operator Dukes Education.

A new headteacher, Kate Vintiner, has been appointed with immediate effect.

It comes at the close of a difficult two years for Heathside in which a string of regulatory issues led to a staff and pupil exodus in 2017-18.

Speaking to the Ham&High on Monday, Aatif Hassan, the founder of Dukes, said he was "confident" the firm could "build confidence in the school and its community".

He said: "A school is basically a set of teacher-pupil interactions. The teaching and learning at Heathside is nothing short of outstanding. We were fortunate enough to speak to some 30 parents who were unanimous in their love and affection towards the teaching staff.

A letter was sent out to Heathside parents on Thursday, July 11 informing them of the decision.A letter was sent out to Heathside parents on Thursday, July 11 informing them of the decision.

"With that in place, there is real hope for us to fix the issues that have led to an unfortunate downturn. It's heartwarming and really special that parents are so loyal."

Dukes was established in 2015 and now runs three boarding and day colleges, three secondary schools, five preparatory schools and 10 nurseries.

A new subsidiary, Hampstead Schools Ltd, was incorporated on June 25 to take on the assets held by Heathside's former parent companies.

The only asset still held by the former parent companies, which are owned by former head Melissa Remus, is the Old White Bear pub in New End - an asset of community value and the subject of a long-running campaign for it to be restored as a pub.

Previous plans were passed for the school to move into the upstairs while the downstairs would be re-opened as a pub, but in December last year this had yet to happen.

The Old White Bear is the only asset still held by Heathside's former parent company. Picture: Polly HancockThe Old White Bear is the only asset still held by Heathside's former parent company. Picture: Polly Hancock

Mr Hassan said: "We have paid an undisclosed sum for the school which will be used by the previous owners to distribute between their creditors. The Old White Bear is outside the scope of the purchase and that's not part of Dukes or Heathside anymore. We are a school operator and we will stick to running school buildings."

Heathside currently charges between £9,000 and £18,900 a year in fees and at the time of the last Ofsted inspection had 544 pupils aged two to 14 on the roll.

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There are no plans at present to change staffing levels and no changes are planned to the overall curriculum, or what age ranges are catered for.

Mr Hassan added: "We have assured that all staff will be paid and their pensions appropriately paid, and their employment rights will be protected."

Dukes Education founder Aatif Hassan. Picture: Dukes EducationDukes Education founder Aatif Hassan. Picture: Dukes Education

A new board of governors has been set up to complement the work of the existing advisory board.

A finance director will also be brought in to work alongside the new headteacher, and a team from Dukes will provide support in HR, compliance, property, finance and marketing, and support on educational matters.

Ms Remus will be kept on in a new position as "founder" and to chair a new committee called Heart of Heathside.

Mr Hassan said: "The school has issues around the regulatory system. We need to act swiftly to stabilise the place and there are some very pressing things to do.

"But we need to make sure with the changes proposed, the founding vision is retained and we don't take away anything that's at the heart. For instance, if there's a particular club or activity or part of the curriculum that's really special, we need to make sure we are aware of it. Melissa was the custodian and ambassador-in-chief for many, many years. It's important we recognise the role she has played."

The new headteacher, Kate Vintiner, had previously worked with Heathside as the director of education at safeguarding training body Aspire.

Originally a science teacher, she also founded an education business charity, Spark, and was a director of Place2Be, a charity providing mental health support in schools, from 2014 to 2016.

She told the Ham&High: "Heathside is one of the very rare schools that focuses on every child and bringing forth what's within them.

"It's brilliant about really caring for every individual and giving high quality, solid provision for all.

"There's a lot that can be done in terms of staff morale and to ensure that every member of staff is happy and working to their full potential. My team are going to work in the most professional way and the early conversations have been fantastic. All the teachers are excited about September and ready to start the new year with gusto."

Three meetings have been held for parents in the last week, one within about 10 minutes of Dukes signing on the dotted line.

Those who could not attend are invited to further meetings on September 3 and 4, both at 3pm at the Lower School site in Heath Street.

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