Whatever one’s political stance and educational preferences, private schools are a topic of much debate and strong views.
At the recent 2019 Labour Party conference, delegates adopted a motion committing the party to making all fee-paying schools public, with the probability of including it in their election manifesto. On the surface, a significant potential issue for private schools but this prospect has hung over the sector for many years.
In addition to the continuing political shadow on the horizon, the private school sector is facing many immediate challenges to its appeal and sustainability.
Top of the list is the government requirement for universities to widen their access and demonstrate that they are committed to admitting a higher proportion of state school pupils. There is a particular emphasis here on Oxbridge and the other, perceived as elite, Russell Group universities. This autumn, more than 68% of students at Cambridge are from the state sector, up from 65% last year. Historically, a major appeal of private schools has been their well-publicised success in their pupils gaining access to Russell Group universities.
For private school governors, currently top of the in-box is the issue of teachers’ pensions. Employer contributions are due to increase from 23.6 per cent, up from 16.48 per cent now. The Chief Executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools has written to the Treasury warning that more than 100 preparatory schools could shut down because of the increase. And with schools deciding to leave the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, it will make it much harder to attract new staff alongside an expected exodus of current staff to the state sector.
Additionally, governing bodies wrestling with the teachers’ pension requirements have recently been hit, with the Department of Education announcing that salaries for new teachers are set to rise to £30,000 by 2022-23. Many good teachers from the private sector will find the state school remuneration package more financially attractive and secure in the future.
But if the teaching staff are the most valuable asset in schools, within the private sector physical assets and the approach to an all-encompassing curriculum and child focussed development have always been important. Even here many new academies and free schools have been playing catch up and copying the approach of the private sector – sports facilities, out of hours activities, individual child centred support etc. In many cases, the local new state school now boasts far more appealing facilities than neighbouring private schools, providing a compelling child centred offer in comparison.
In addition to the school centred challenges, the uncertain outcome of Brexit could produce many unintended consequences, not least a downturn in admissions from overseas students and an exodus of current students due to financial pressures.
Despite the uncertain political ramifications for the sustainability and future of private schools, the current economic and market challenges will be well known to governors and school leaders. It is prudent therefore for governors and school leaders to satisfy themselves that their school and community are robust in the following areas:
Brand strength – not just the logo, website or brochure. An understanding of the distinctiveness of the school, its history and heritage, and a complete integration of the values and culture embodied in the DNA of the school and understood by all partners – students, staff, parents, governors, ex-students and staff, and the local/regional/national community.
Staff development – ensure all staff are collaborated with as partners in the development of the school, its brand and ethos and have full personal development plans in place – coaching, mentoring, training, career development
Local community – make sure the school is a part of the community not apart from the community. Let the local community into school and share in its development, and, embrace and support their local issues, concerns and initiatives.
State school partnership – support and share with your local state schools, initiatives, activities and resources – physical and personal.
Benefits not features – understand the real benefits you provide for your students and staff, rather than just focus on the features of the school and its environment.
Recruitment and admissions – make certain there is a fully integrated approach to this critical area where everyone understands and plays their part – students, staff, parents.
Maximise assets – ensure your physical assets are generating returns for as much of the year as possible. Agree with your staff how their expertise can be used in the most effective way, for themselves and for the school.
Advocacy – engage with all your potential partners, supporters and advocates to maximise the reputation of the school and its values and enhance its profile locally, regionally and in some cases nationally.
A future Government and/or Brexit may produce some unforeseen or unpalatable outcomes but the challenges detailed above are real and now. Schools that can see these challenges as opportunities and react to the current and anticipate potential future circumstances will thrive, those that accept the status quo may find it difficult to survive.