Best of British

Tim Wilbur, Gabbitas Education, discusses how to tackle the financial issues involved in sustaining a school

For some Heads, the New Year may bring ‘resolutions’ for others it will bring ‘imperatives’. As an erstwhile Head of a provincial boarding school the January imperative was to have enough interest in boarding places for the following September. There was not even the question of where to look as the answer was becoming a well-travelled path to Asia. The nights were sleepless. In the final year wrestling with this problem nearly a decade ago, as late as March the school still needed to transact £3.2 million worth of business which was imprinted on my mind as 126 full boarders. The target was achieved, although it was a very close call. The secret
of the successful outcome however, was not by chance and the truth was that this target had to be sustained year on year. 

The difficulty of sustaining a school through fee revenue remains a constant. The importance of understanding the financial issues to running and sustaining a school is perhaps not a natural skill set to many aspiring Heads. However, leaving it to the ‘money men or women’ in a school is not an option either. It takes a combination of all the teaching, business and marketing units in a school to do this successfully. The school referred to had a multi-dimensional curriculum package not only involving A Levels and the IB but also an International Study Centre offering IGCSE; there was a very large portfolio of agents and the wisdom to service them with a knowledgeable educationalist, who knew the school very well, at first stationed in Bangkok but then moved to Hong Kong and a bright young marketing team to die for. There was also a caring team of accomplished professionals to look after the students once they arrived. Retention was an important word not only for the teaching staff but also the administration who fully supported each other in this quest.

There is increasing interest and no little success in placing international students in schools that do not possess boarding facilities

A decade on, in a very different guise, the issue of offering the best that is British education to overseas students remains high on the agenda of the people I work both with and for. However, some aspects of the landscape have changed. There is as everyone knows, a vast demand for the creation of international schools with roughly a third preferring the National Curriculum for England. The question of assuaging this demand and its inherent need for teachers is a major discussion point that is far too large to touch on here. It is important to know however my colleagues have designed schools and worked on turnaround projects in this diverse market.

Of some interest to a sleepless Head may be a recent business opportunity Gabbitas Education is working on. There is increasing interest and no little success in placing international students in schools that do not possess boarding facilities. The ‘host-family’ concept has always had traction but it is now becoming a preferred option for some schools. A very successful school in Norfolk has turned its back on sixth form boarding and gone down this route, other schools see the benefit of maintaining school rolls in difficult times by investing here too. In an age where a win-win scenario is rare, it may be time for boarding schools with small numbers to divest themselves of all the costs, particularly those involving regulation and infrastructure and move to this model. It would of course, allow those rightly convinced in a boarding situation to become part of a larger boarding community. 

To quote a very famous Asian commentator also involved in financial regeneration for the largest country on earth, ‘it does not matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice!’ 


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