Magicians are wonderful masters of deception but this is no easy task despite how they make it seem. There is a lot involved with pulling the wool over the eyes of , usually, not just one person but a whole room of people. They used to say ‘it’s all done with smoke and mirrors’ and, metaphorically at least, that’s still true.
There have been some great illusions over the years – think David Copperfield vanishing a jumbo jet or the Statue of Liberty – but I have never heard of a magician who could make an entire school disappear, complete with staff and pupils inside. Now that’s quite some magical feat! Indeed, to do so would require not one magician but a whole team taking on different roles to manage the magical effect. Under normal circumstances I would (as a faithful member of a magic society myself) keep mum about how the trick is done; magicians never reveal their secrets after all. But today I will expose the trick and risk the wrath of those who would rather the workings are kept hidden from view.
Here then is how to vanish a school. I take my examples from the most current version of this trick I know: St Bees School.
The Smoke – keeping things hidden
1) Show your hands empty
The good magician always shows his hands empty, nothing up the sleeves, the deck is ordinary, the box is normal. But be aware, it’s never the situation you think it is. Something is being kept hidden from view.
In April 2014 the board of Governors submitted their summary of accounts to the Charities Commission for year end April 2013. The document goes out of its way to show there is nothing to see here:
“Question 6 – The charity’s financial health
How would you describe your charity’s financial health at the end of the period?
With total funds of £3.8 million, including unrestricted funds of £1.5 million, the financial health of the School is considered satisfactory.
Question 7 – The next year
How will the overall performance last year affect your charity’s medium to long term strategy?
The School’s overall performance last year is not expected to affect its medium to long term strategy.”
Between April 2014 and March 2015 then either something went terribly wrong or the Governors were lying in this legally required document. If the former, then they have kept completely under wraps just what went so catastrophically wrong and still have never explained the situation; indeed the accounts for year end 2014 are now overdue even after ten months to prepare them and it is partially on the strength of these accounts that the board chose to close the school. If the latter then how can we ever trust another word they say?
2) Set up the Con – dazzle them with a story
The magician will then ‘set up’ the trick by spinning a yarn, telling a tale, making some excuse for what he’s doing. It doesn’t matter how absurd (I’m going to read your mind) as long as it’s a reason.
The governors stated not once but several times both in letter and in spoken word during the public meetings in March and April that they had ‘considered every possible solution’ and concluded the school was simply not viable. Offers to help from Keswick School and the impressive £2 million rescue package the Rescue Team came up with within days of the announcement were rejected outright (indeed, the board didn’t even respond to Keswick School’s letter). Instead, Professor Woods insisted the situation was hopeless as the school was set to lose around £450,000 in this year and projections for next year were that it would lose £700,000.
These sound awesome figures except that every expert the Save St Bees School Campaign (SSBSC) have consulted have been baffled how a school with no real creditors and assets totalling around close to £5 million could even be considering closing. It is nowhere near insolvency; it needed a better business model.
There are problems with the figure of £450,000 lost this year too. In fact the school made around £4.1 million and had costs of salaries and other expenditure of about £4.4 million. The inflated figures probably come from the bizarre arrangement of ‘loans’ which the Society of Old St Beghians (who appoint several of the Governors by the way) give to the school. These loans come out of a trust fund set up by the OSBs which came from fund-raising several years ago for the school. So let’s take a moment to think about this: The OSBs effectively loan the school its own money. In fact if the OSBs gave the school the proceeds of that funraising the accounts would look about £1 million better off!
It’s difficult to be completely certain of the figures because – you guessed it – the Governors aren’t letting anyone look at the accounts. But certainly it seems that about £200,000 of losses are the result of bizarre accounting to make the situation look worse than it is. In other words, in real terms, the school will probably lose around £250,000 this year. But even if you did accept the £450,000, that only comes to about 8% of the expenditure (using full, inflated figures of profit = £5 million and expenditure = £ 5.5 million) and this is, frankly, peanuts for a business the size of the school, with its turnover and operating costs.
A 10% cut in costs would cover this figure. In reality, if parents paid an extra 5% on the fees (currently coming to just under £4 million) and the school made cuts in spending by 5% the school would almost certainly be breaking even and possibly even run at a surplus. The Rescue Team established within a week of the announcement of closure that most parents would be prepared to pay an increase of fees at 5%, 10%, !5% or more. So why couldn’t the school find ways to cut costs too?
We can only wildly guess and conjecture where the figure of £750,000 came from but you see, once the magician has hooked the audience with a little lie, he can reel them in with a whopper. The fact that the Rescue Team had secured considerably more than this amount and that the cost of closing the school is estimated to be something over £1,000,000 (and probably much higher), has been nicely hidden in the smoke – keeping the school running would have been cheaper.
Nicely done, Mr Magician, nicely done.
The Mirrors – misdirection par excellence
3) The Burn
There comes the point in the trick when the magician knows his audience are ‘burning’ his hands – watching everything he’s doing to see if he performs any secret dodgy move, palming a card or slipping a coin into his pocket. This is when he needs to use misdirection. It is an art to do it properly and the best in the business will make sure you’ll never see even their most audacious moves.
The SSBSC team launched a counter-attack after the disgraceful performance by Professor Woods at the public meeting in April where he not only refused to resign (despite promising several times that he would if the parents wanted him to) but he also poured scorn over legitimate complaints. The result was a petition signed by over 1,000 people – a large proportion being OSBs themselves – for the governing board to resign. Woods has still not resigned.
The response was for Dacre Watson, the President of the Society of OSB, to write to the OSBs and assure them that the Governors were working hard and to ‘bear with the Governors in their endeavours’. The rumbles of some movement – albeit what kind Mr Watson was unable to say – were really the stage crew setting the mirrors for the magic to really begin.
4) The Vanishing
At the same time the Charities Commission (CC) received a huge wave of complaints and came to investigate the actions of the Governors (who failed to tell the CC that they were closing the school) for themselves. I don’t think it was coincidence that immediately after the Governors met with the CC on the 18th May the board released notice that they now intended to save the school. While we would love to believe our campaign putting pressure on the board resulted in a complete turn around and the aim of saving the school had been achieved, we all smelt a rat.
The Rescue Team were bewildered saying “the communication really leaves us at a loss as it appears that the governors have fundamentally shifted their position.”
Professor Woods talked of arranging “for the establishment of a small project team of suitably qualified individuals to lead this transition work” yet despite promises back in April, neither the Rescue Team nor the SSBSC team have been invited to any discussions about this project team. In fact we don’t know of anyone who has been invited to be part of this team nor any details of this apparent plan.
While many have welcomed the plan to reopen in September 2016 it seems to have slipped their minds that these same Governors, just weeks ago, assured us that there was no possible way to save the school. They have, effectively, evicted everyone from the premises now they have made sure that all the staff and all the students have to leave this year before – Hey Presto! – the school is to reappear one year later.
Or is it?
5) The Reappearance
Here’s a little hint when watching the magician. When he vanishes something and then makes it reappear somewhere impossibly the chances are it isn’t the same object.
The fact is, when schools close they end up in the hands of property developers. There are still massive question marks around the Governors’ plans which continue to be shrouded in mystery. The fact is only the ‘endowed’ buildings are required by the charity status to be maintained for education. All the other buildings and plots are up for grabs and could potentially be sold off to raise capital.
If these plans are all above board why wait until the last day of school, as latest announcements have said, to give the details? Why not tell us now? Why not tell the Rescue Team even in secret so that we could be assured that we’re being told the truth? Why not engage with people who could still work to open the school this September? Why wait until everyone is powerless to do anything about it? Why evict an entire community – teachers, ground staff, students and suppliers – to start something from scratch? How different will this new school be that it can’t retain any of those who belonged to it before?
The important rule for any magician is this: never tell the audience what you’re about to do. If they know what to expect then misdirection is almost impossible and they will burn you so hard that your cleverness and trickery will be immediately apparent and you’ll look a fool.
So if a magician does tell you what he’s about to do you can guarantee he’s actually about to do something completely different. Remember: never trust the trickster.
It waits to be seen what the next part of the St Bees illusion will be. Will it be the final part, the reappearance? Will there be a twist in the tale, like the object returning as something completely different – like a lion turned into a mouse perhaps? Or is this more like a multiphase routine where magical effect after magical effect will happen so often we’ll have completely forgotten where we were at the beginning, how we got here, or how we ever allowed ourselves to be so completely and utterly deceived?
And the Magician takes a bow.