Sector trends

Independent schools study their future

Britain’s independent schools impressed parents with their resilience and adaptability during lockdown. Now they are looking to build on this enthusiasm to secure their post-pandemic success.

Independent schools were always more likely than their state counterparts to be able to react quickly to the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic. Their staff migrated more swiftly on to online learning platforms, providing videoconferencing and chat rooms for pupils who generally had much easier access to laptops and tablets – all of which ensured learning continued uninterrupted (source: Teacher Tapp).

But the devastating economic impact of Covid makes the sector’s longer-term situation more challenging. Many schools have discounted fees to reflect pupils having had to learn from home. They have also lost revenue from international pupils’ inability to travel into the UK, and from a halt in demand for venue hire. Most significantly, the shrinking of the UK economy, business closures and job losses have left many parents unsure if they can afford a private education for their children.

“Schools responded quickly,” says David Woodgate, CEO of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association. “Many froze fees, offered discounts and set up hardship funds for parents in straitened financial circumstances. Like other private businesses, many received help from the chancellor of the exchequer’s emergency Covid support grants and loans.”

The longer lockdown went on, the more schools started to think long term.

Woodgate adds: “Covid is a catalyst for schools to look at their operating model within the seismic shift in the business landscape – and figure out how to respond.”

Change was already on the way

Even before 2020, independent schools’ bottom line was already set to be hit by a rise in employer contributions to teacher pensions, an increase in new teacher starting salaries and a forthcoming withdrawal of certain tax concessions for staff who live on-site. The additional pressure of the pandemic proved too much for more than 40 of the UK’s 2,300 independent schools, which closed their doors forever, among them York’s famous Minster School. St Mary’s Catholic boarding school for girls in Shaftesbury, Dorset, could not be saved despite parents raising £250,000 in 24 hours to try to keep it open.

The better news is not only that many more survived, but enquiries for places have boomed. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the new wave of enthusiasm from prospective parents,” says Christopher King, CEO of the Independent Association of Prep Schools.

Covid is a catalyst for schools to look at their operating model within the seismic shift in the business landscape – and figure out how to respond

David Woodgate, CEO, Independent Schools’ Bursars Association

Kilgraston School in Perth is just one school that, as of late 2020, was enjoying more enquiries. “Interest has significantly increased,” said head of finance Moira Mackie. “Pupil sign-up numbers are stronger than we anticipated, particularly in junior (primary) years and the domestic boarding market – although it’s taking longer for parents to commit against the current financial backdrop.” Travel restrictions have meant a downshift in foreign students, but, before the lockdown of late 2020, Kilgraston was expecting new starts by pupils from Thailand, the US, Mexico, France, Germany and Ukraine.

Ben Evans, headteacher of Windlesham House School in West Sussex, says much of this interest is down to the “admirable” way many schools migrated to online learning during lockdown. “Their quick implementation of high-level, robust remote learning programmes has shone a light on the value of independent education,” he says. “Some have even seen increased market interest for day pupils. Many younger children struggled to adapt to homeschooling, and the way independent schools ensured those children maintained a routine is a possible driver for this interest.”

Monetising new ways of learning

That smooth transition hasn’t just helped current pupils, says Woodgate; it could open up a whole new revenue stream. “Parents and teachers have seen the value independent schools have offered online, leading to not just prospective pupil enquiries, but boosting staff recruitment too. Longer-term, schools are thinking, ‘How can we monetise such effective online learning? We could have a global market.’ Effective remote learning means an emerging middle-class family anywhere in the world that has the bandwidth and speaks English can give their children a British education even if they can’t afford to send them here. Schools could turn misfortune into advantage.”

Many schools are already doing this. Kilgraston has seized the uptick in interest to rebrand its summer school, attracting interest from Turkey, Russia and China. Says Mackie: “Our non-residential October half-term sports camps saw a 200% year-on-year increase in attendee numbers.”

At Benenden School for girls in Kent, headteacher Samantha Price also sees opportunities in online. She says: “There’s no doubt the best way to learn is face to face, but it’s shown us how adaptable and agile we can be. It’s enhanced our brand and we don’t want to step back from that.”

Even with a virus vaccine, schools need to take longer-term decisions to cope with a new normal, says Woodgate. “Some will put capital expenditure on hold,” he says. “Cash is king, so some would think now is not the time to press ahead with a new development.”

Safety in numbers?

Many schools, Woodgate adds, may be considering a seismic change to consolidate their future – by merging.

“This might be the time to talk to another school about a coming together, joining, say, two schools of 400 to make one of 800 that is future-proofed,” says Woodgate. “You could sell off a site, to invest in the fabric of the retained site or put money into bursary funds to help disadvantaged families, and of course get economies of scale. Single-sex schools may consider going co-ed.”

Mergers need careful handling – a move announced last year in Coventry to combine the city’s 650-year-old Bablake and 475-year-old King Henry VIII schools prompted 2,400 alumni and parents to sign a petition against it. But, says Woodgate, such comings together can be the best way to cement both schools’ future. “You preserve and recognise the past, but you also need to ensure you have a financially viable 21st-century school to enable you to create more history.

“Some larger charitable schools are looking to acquire smaller schools, particularly prep schools, and build up mini foundations. UK and international investors will be looking to buy schools that are fundamentally strong but need TLC, investment in facilities or help with marketing to get bums on seats.”

Changes may be inevitable, but the sector is optimistic. “Whatever we do and however we change along the way,” says Price, “we’ll deliver excellence and work together to that end.”

Woodgate says schools have work to do, but the quality of their product should ensure a thriving future. “It’s about recognising there is a need for change,” he says. “The days when you’d suffer a financial shock in the economy and pass it on to parents through increased fees are over. Schools have to adapt, revisit their strategy and make sure it’s a living, dynamic document, because there will be more change that we haven’t seen yet.

“But there is so much to be optimistic about – the main one being that the fundamental product is brilliant.”

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