Meet the school heads planning for the known unknowns

Hannah Vickers talks to senior leaders about how they’re dealing with the financial challenges of an increasingly squeezed independent sector

Fees increasing faster than salaries, threats to charitable status and the continued uncertainty of Brexit, the independent sector has found itself battered by financial insecurities in recent years. Independent schools are having to become more proactive in student recruitment, fundraising and engagement than ever before.

Alex Hutchinson, Headmistress of Catholic secondary boarding and day school Woldingham School, has to keep a close eye on sector pressures and developments. “The constant rumblings of government and shadow government and their hostility to our sector mean the threats surrounding our landscape are constantly shifting,” she explained.

Alex Hutchinson

For Alex, the financial uncertainties around the independent sector are as worrying as the challenges they already face.

“There are known unknowns in the guise of Brexit and warnings of VAT on school fees, but the unknown unknowns are very hard to plan for,” she said. Woldingham’s decision-making and forward planning is guided by the four principles of awareness, dynamism, sustainability and resilience, which Alex says helps plan for an uncertain future.

As for the ‘known unknowns’, it’s not just Brexit that is having an impact on schools with international students. Head of Rossall School Elaine Purves says that the proportion of boarders in her school makes it particularly vulnerable to the strength of the euro and changes to economical health of the countries its pupils come from.

“For example, when the Russian economy struggled three years ago, this meant that the number of Russian families who could afford to send their children to a UK boarding school plummeted,” said Elaine. Rossall mitigates this by making sure they have a good balance of students from different countries. At present, the school has pupils from more than 35 different countries.

Rossall School pupils

Specialist schools are also feeling the squeeze. Riverston School supports children with additional learning requirements, including mild to moderate special educational needs, which forces the school to be closely linked to local authority budget constraints. Chairman of The Riverston Group Michael Lewis believes that the biggest threat they face is the continuing pressure on SEND fees from local authorities.

“Riverston supports children, many of whom have significant additional and special educational needs, and provides them with the specialist quantity and quality of education they deserve which requires a high level of increasingly specialist staffing,” he said.

The school hasn’t been able to increase its fees for several years because of local authority budget cuts, which – along with the need to provide more specialist care than in other schools – forces the school to be more careful in its spending. They don’t have fundraising personnel or a development office, and the increasing financial constraints that specialist schools find themselves under are putting them at risk.

“With increasing employment costs, especially in London, and unless there is respite in the downward pressure on fees – when everything else is increasing! – the quality of support schools such as Riverston are able to provide such children and young adults may well decline,”said Michael. 

A threat to charitable status

The government has significantly watered down its threat to withdraw the charitable status of schools that fail to support neighbouring state-funded schools, a move that has been welcomed by the sector. Partnerships between the sectors are extremely important, but Alex says that many independent schools already support neighbouring state-sector schools and that incentive always works better than the threat of sanction.

“We must never lose sight of the fact that the mindset behind sharing educational opportunities with partner schools in the state sector should be based on ‘we are doing this because it is absolutely the right thing to do’ and never because ‘we need to tick this box.’ Independent schools work very hard in this area and should be encouraged to continue. Carrot rather than stick, please,” said Alex. 

Elaine is in agreement, saying that independent schools support neighbouring schools for public benefit reasons.

“We do it because it’s in line with our objectives – to educate! – and because we enjoy working collaboratively with other schools,” said Elaine. “It is important not to be an isolated ivory tower and collaboration with local schools enables us to be accessible and useful to the wider community.”

Michael Carslaw

Head of St Leonards School Michael Carslaw says that it is important that Scottish independent schools registered as charities support and work with schools in the state sector, adding that St Leonards continues to strengthen its relationships with local primary and secondary schools.

“We are keen to share our facilities and are proud to work collaboratively to ultimately benefit young people in our local area,” said Michael Carslaw. 

A scheme he is particularly proud of is their swimming initiative to offer neighbouring schools a six-week block of tuition in the school’s 25m swimming pool.  

“Since launching this in 2016, the lessons have proved a great success and the programme will continue to keep up with the high demand from our local primary schools,” he added. 

Responding to the challenge

Independent schools aren’t taking the threats to their sector lying down. Many have increased their fundraising efforts and several schools have now introduced a dedicated development manager to help ensure long-term financial sustainability.

Having a role that is dedicated to maintaining relationships with everyone to do with the school – past and present parents, pupils, school staff and governors – ensures that fundraising and relationship-building remain a high priority for the school. In a time when schools are generally tightening their belts, it can seem like an unjustifiable expense but according to Alex, a development officer is an indispensable role that schools can’t afford to be without.

“The benefits are having someone in role whose focus is on opportunities and who can cast their net wide when considering strategies for our people, our facilities and our pupils’ futures. A creative mind in this role has opened up so many avenues to ensure we are dynamic, aware, resilient and sustainable,” she explained.

Elaine Purves

However, school leaders need to be aware that having a specialist role like this is a long-term solution and it may take time before schools see the positive results of their investment.

St Leonards has had a development office for years. “Their main objective is to build, strengthen and maintain relationships with alumni, current and past parents, as well as the local community, staff and the school governing board (in our case, School Council), and to enable the school to benefit from their influence and goodwill,” said Michael Carslaw.

The school, through its development office, works hard to maintain good relationships with parents and alumni, with quarterly newsletters, special events and dinners held in key cities.

“Many of our former pupils, families and friends live all over the world, and this allows our development and fundraising alumni events to take place in many different destinations across the globe,” added Michael Carslaw. 

Elaine says that a development office helps with the “continued cultivation” of relationships that the school needs to keep up with, enabling them to keep a strong focus on development while continuing to meet long-term strategic aims. She is confident that the independent sector remains an antidote to the narrowing of subject choice in state-funded schools.

“Independent schools will become even brighter beacons of creative subjects, modern and ancient languages, performing arts and sport,” said Elaine. “With the increased financial pressure on the state sector, independent schools will also be able to maintain a greater focus on developing and nurturing the individual with smaller class sizes, tailored support and a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities.” 

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