Future proofing

Editor Stephanie Broad gets a peek at what’s to come for independent schools at Practical Strategies 2015

The exterior of the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall, our venue for the day, is having a facelift, which is rather fitting given the current debate around independent schools. Academic excellence, social mobility and even schools’ charitable status have all been called into question, and as heads, bursars and governors assemble in London there is a feeling that the sector is indeed evolving. 

Hosted by Veale Wasbrough Vizards (VWV), the Practical Strategies conference offers an insight into the latest trends and developments in independent schools to make strategic plans for the future. 

Richard Green, chairman of AGBIS, opens the conference and plenary speaker Julie Robinson, General Secretary starts off with a SWOT analysis of the sector. She refers to a recent Telegraph headline, which claimed fee-paying A level students were ‘outclassed’ by top comprehensive schools. Julie reminds delegates that “our success as a niche group makes us vulnerable to outside perception” and that independent schools should take part in the broader education debate to maintain a good public image, as “being a minority makes us unfashionable”. 

Julie discusses the recent Telegraph headline

Julie also mentions the ongoing Goddard enquiry, which is investigating historic cases of abuse in institutions, telling delegates: “We must embrace safeguarding and compliance” to maintain modern, safe places for pupils. 

The ISC is planning “soft, value-added research” to champion more than pure academic achievement. In addition, they have launched Schools Together, a website showcasing the work independents are doing with state schools and maintained jointly by the ISC, Department for Education and the Independent/State Schools Partnership (ISSP), a termly forum with representatives from both sectors. According to the last ISC Census, 1,073 independent schools are currently in partnership with state schools, in areas including sports, drama and music, academic study, music and governance. 

Teacher recruitment is becoming a threat – as a school’s most valuable asset, they are also their biggest expenditure. Julie recognises there is a need to invest in teachers whilst also balancing the books against a “backdrop of austerity”. Fees are also a challenge to the sector, as rising costs price out more parents. In conclusion, we can be optimistic, but determined. 

Next up is Robert Fletcher, who cut his marketing teeth at Saatchi and founded agency Robert Fletcher and Partners. Robert speaks of the ‘marketing Darwinism’ that schools are facing – it’s survival of the fittest, but what is meant by ‘fit’? Schools need to define their brand concisely and consistently, which means being able to answer the simple question,  ‘Why is this school great?’

He gives examples of schools with which he has worked, using a three-step formula: finding a ‘human truth’, a ‘brand truth’ and a ‘universally compelling idea’. 

Robert Fletcher explains his formula

Ampleforth College’s human truth is: life is a journey, so you’d better have a good map. Their brand truth, a fact about the school, is that they are a combined school and monastery that overlap to give depth and perspective. Therefore, their universally compelling idea is ‘A compass to navigate life’. 

Robert gives many similar and engaging examples, including Eton College which was keen to promote that their students are given independence but have a good safety net: “You are on your own, but not alone”. It’s clear that against a background of rising fees, parent scrutiny and league-table competition, schools need a message to set themselves apart. Robert Fletcher looks the person to do it. 

Suitably inspired, we break for coffee before the first sessions begin. We choose ‘Managing change and development’ presented by Paul Westbrook, Bursar at Brighton College. Brighton has been through significant change in recent years, including a huge leap up the league tables, a 20% increase in EBITDA and five new buildings in as many years. This is not without its sacrifices, however – Paul describes having to firm up parent contracts, deal with cynical staff and mitigate growing costs. 

A presentation on finances runs the risk of being dry, but Paul is a warm and witty speaker: “I thought a terabyte was a prehistoric bird!” He highlights that instead of analysing the school’s current position, they focused solely on where they wanted to be and assessed the operational and financial obstacles that would arise. He offers some truly useful tips for change management, that live up to the ‘practical’ theme of the day. 

Brighton’s aim was to increase demand for the school, become more economically efficient, increase non-core income and increase capacity. A number of efficiencies were made to accommodate this ambition. Fee debt chasing raised £100,000 and loss leaders such as school buses were researched and made more suitable for pupils, cutting unnecessary routes. Higher fees are charged for overseas students and the curriculum has been revised, offering attractive subjects such as Mandarin and public speaking. 

Overall, it’s been a hugely effective exercise for Brighton due to their combined vision, leadership, planning and investment.

Next, Mark Jeynes from Bishopstrow College examines the international market, identifying opportunities and drivers for the growth in this area. 

There are currently over 27,000 international students who are enrolled at UK independent schools, whose parents are overseas. A further 16,000 are enrolled with parents also in the UK. It’s a large market and goes to show the high regard in which an English education is held. The majority of these students are in post-16 education, as parents see it as a pathway into Russell Group and Ivy League universities as well as top careers. 

Delegates vote on international school issues

In terms of nationality, China is the largest source of international students – closely followed by Russia, Germany and the rest of Europe. Mark says: “It’s well-documented that there are a growing number of middle and high earners in developing markets”, and many parents see learning English, preferably in an English school, as a high priority. Mark identifies four main growth drivers for international students:

  1. Rising wealth: the number of high-earning households in certain markets, such as China and Nigeria, continue to grow
  2. Better quality of education: the perceived quality of education at UK boarding schools is greater than that at home
  3. Improving language skills: widely regarded as the ‘global language’, an English language-based education is in demand
  4. Increasing supply: a boost in enrolments from overseas markets is welcomed outside London and the south-east in response to local demand changes 

There are some risks – the Russian market has become unstable due to the decline of the ruble and the political climate. It’s possible that China could experience something similar as its economy experiences pressure. 

Delegates are then asked to vote on a short series of questions, providing a good boost of interactivity. School representatives in the room are asked if they are considering targeting international students – 83% say yes. The reasons given are capacity issues, a perceived decline in UK boarders and a willingness to attract quality candidates and improve the overall academic performance. The majority says they want to attract overseas candidates to their existing school, rather than opening a new college or partnering with another, and the top challenges of the international market, we learn, are the perceived competition, immigration law, brand recognition and caution among governors. 

Doug Locke from VWV steps in to point out that brand recognition is not something to worry about – as UK independent schools largely sell themselves – but they can work with governors to allay concerns. 

There are of course logistical and operational challenges and risks, but it seems that the internationalisation of our independent schools is set to keep rising, presenting a wealth of opportunity. 

L-R: The Institute of Directors, setting up for sessions and interactive voting technology

In our last session, RS Academics (in association with Coutts) present ‘Ten Trends for Governors’ which reflect the significant ‘moving with the times’ theme of the day:

  1. School leadership is changing: it’s becoming dispersed and requiring specific CPD, for example ‘Head of…’ and ‘Coordinator of…’ roles increasing.
  2. Governors’ roles are more complex: there are now over 400 ISI framework regulations and governors are being recruited from more diverse specialisms
  3. The number of trainee teachers is falling: governors have a recruitment challenge, particularly where subject specialists are concerned and retirements call for good succession planning
  4. Pupil wellbeing is coming to the top of the agenda: mental health is increasingly recognized and staff surveys highlight work/life balance concerns.
  5. The state school sector is changing: 60% of state schools are now academies and other types of institution such as free schools and UTCs are growing in popularity. This presents competition as well as partnership opportunities.
  6. Technology’s growing influence in the classroom presents new opportunities: ‘blended learning’, collaboration and classroom design are all growing trends.
  7. The focus on London: its gravitational pull reaches far outside the city and the growing population has placed unprecedented demand on school places. There has been a rise in pupil numbers at ISC schools in London but affordability continues to be an issue.
  8. Boarding needs a strategy: schools need to be open about what they offer, communicate clearly about boarding and consider rising international numbers.
  9. The 11+/13+ debate: prep schools have opened pre-prep and nurseries, prep schools have reduced leaving ages to 11 and some 13+ schools have lowered their entry age to 11. This has been driven by a trend towards co-ed.
  10. Independents could be pricing themselves out: 30% of parents surveyed by the ISC would send their children to private school if they could, but only seven percent do. Average fees have quadrupled since 1990 and price is a clear barrier to participation. 


Ten trends for governors

After a day of excellent speakers, the charismatic Peter Green of Rugby School sent us away from the conference feeling inspired about the year to come. Both nostalgic and forward-looking, Peter reminded us that the most-pursued jobs in 2012 didn’t exist in 2004, and that, while the first text message was sent in 1992, every day the number of texts now sent exceed the world’s population. 

Peter emphasises that education goes far beyond school years – how you teach is just as important as what you teach. He wants to include the arts in the growing emphasis on STEM – making it STEAM – as expressive creativity is required for real innovation, presenting skills and communicating ideas. It’s a point well made and the knowing smiles in the room confirm the future is focused on the whole child. Full STEAM ahead, then. 


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