A PRIVATE Winchester school has caused chaos among scores of families by announcing that it is to close this summer.

Nethercliffe School in Hatherley Road, Fulflood, will shut its doors for the last time on July 14, according to a statement today.

The 130 pupil school is to close because of rising costs and falling pupil numbers.

Angry parents are now rushing to find new schools for their children.

One parent, who asked not to be named, said today: "We are scrambling to try to get our child into the same school as her friends. It's a nightmare."

Another parent, speaking at the school gates, said: "We are too upset, we don't want to talk about it."

The future of the school, in an upmarket street, was unclear. It would likely be worth a seven-figure sum to property developers.

Headmaster Gordon Whitfield today issued a statement, three days after denying the closure when approached by the Daily Echo.

It said: "It is with great regret that the board of directors announce that the school will cease operations with effect from July 14, 2005, the end of the summer term.

"Headmaster Gordon Whitfield cites the fall in numbers and the increasing costs of operating an independent school as the reasons.

In the statement, Mr Whitfield added: "It is a real shame that the school, in its 90th year, finds itself in such a situation."

"A letter has already been sent to all the current and prospective parents."

On Tuesday, Mr Whitfield had told the Daily Echo: "I'm not sure where these rumours are coming from. They are only rumours as far as I'm concerned. If anything were to happen I would be putting out a statement. At the moment the school is not closing."

One former parent, Tom Romita, of Winchester News newsagent, said today: "It is sad news. It has been there a very long time."

The preparatory school, which teaches boys and girls aged from three to 11 years, was founded in 1915 at numbers 45 and 47 Hatherley Road, almost next door to its present site.

In 1931 the school moved into its current buildings, but the first pupils were from the County High School for Girls, a temporary measure pending the completion of their own buildings.

Mr Whitfield joined the staff in 1964 and has been at the helm since 1970.

The school, which has a maximum class size of 20, backs on to Peter Symonds College.

Many pupils take the entrance exams for further independent schools such as King Edward VI School in Southampton and St Swithun's School in Winchester.

Neighbours voiced concerns about the future of the school site. One woman, who asked not to be named, said: "It's been handled badly. It is terrible for parents. Where are they going to go now? If I were a parent I would be furious."

"We wonder who has bought it. The obvious is a developer which means flats and houses. We prefer the school. It is live and let live. We don't want to become angry Hatherley Road residents."