Let’s not leave survival to just the fittest

Tim Wilbur, Director of School Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, explains why it’s time to address vulnerabilities in the independent sector

I will be speaking at the Westminster Education Forum on 7 November; five minutes of glory in which I will share my views on what can be done to mitigate the impact of a reduction in international pupil numbers. 

In general, the Forum aims to ‘help independent schools broker and further develop relationships with state schools’ and we will discuss ‘the future shape of the independent school sector in England including the future of independent schools’ charitable status and the wider relationship with the state sector’. 

These topics tie in well with our recent research project detailing vulnerabilities within the sector. Reflecting on these issues, it might be time to introduce a new angle on the public benefit debate centring on the known and future impact of school closure on already vulnerable communities.

The general funding crisis in education is common to most areas other than London, the South East and a limited number of regional hot-spots. Our proprietary research shows that junior independent schools in debt make up over 20% of the whole. Given that the government announced last month that 33% of the maintained sector was in similar difficulty, perhaps this is more of a positive figure than might be imagined?

‘It is high time communities asked the question as to how important maintained and independent schools are to both their economies and general wellbeing.’

However, there can be little doubt that the trends are negative. In many regions, therefore, public benefit may not involve partnerships with the maintained sector but rather the importance of the survival of these independent schools in terms of tangible benefits to the communities they help support. Beyond vital aspects of employment for teachers and other staff there are many issues relating to wealth generation from the students and their families, especially in a boarding situation. 

These issues were highlighted to Gabbitas Education in the summer when a leading Spanish educational charity enlisted our help in a potential UK independent school rescue. The school in question was pivotal to its community and had been so for well over 100 years. The fact that the school occupied a central location in the town, providing a heartbeat all its own, falls well short of its psychological importance to its residents, whether involved with the school or not. Many of the local clubs and civic societies relied upon it for a venue and the school was charitable enough to allow the use of its facilities for considerably less than market value. How many independent schools in semi-urban and rural areas continue to provide this public benefit has to be more than a moot point. 

It is high time communities asked the question as to how important maintained and independent schools are to both their economies and general wellbeing. The government’s attention needs drawing to this issue as it is not only part of the wider debate on ‘London and the rest’, but it is central to its apparent goal of social mobility. The independent sector also needs to look beyond its major players and consider whether real charitable effort may be best directed in supporting its vulnerable schools and the real public benefit thereby gained. 

 E: tim.wilbur@gabbitas.com 

 W: gabbitas.com

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