Ensuring longevity for your school
Competition between neighbouring schools is fierce and schools must have a strategy in place, argues Ben Evans, Headmaster at Edge Grove School
Posted by Jo Golding | December 04, 2018 | School life

The world of independent education is extremely competitive for a number of reasons. The number of fee-paying schools offering a high-quality education, combined with many excellent maintained schools out there and the increased financial pressures from the possibility of VAT on school fees, a huge percentage increase in teacher pension contributions and the likelihood of loss of business rates relief, to name a few. Schools cannot meet these increased costs by simply increasing fees as they may have done in previous years because so many middle-income parents have been priced out of the market already.

Fewer children available to fill school places inevitably means that schools will struggle financially and as we are seeing each year, many will sadly have to close or will be forced to merge with local competitors. It is predicted that at least 100 smaller prep schools alone will be forced to close due to the proposed increase in TPS contributions which will come into force in April 2019. 

Understanding the principles of a service industry

Schools now need to focus on themselves as businesses and that means they also need to understand the principles of a service industry as well as providing the best possible standards of teaching, learning and pupil welfare. Never before has this been more important, together with the need to be distinctive in the marketplace and to be offering something special and different from the competition. This doesn’t mean spending millions on gold-plated facilities and yet another astro turf pitch. Parents are now more concerned about value beyond the facilities. It means establishing behaviours and culture that value parents as customers and give them confidence that their children are treated as individuals and are cared for as they would be at home. It’s easy to say but far harder to achieve consistently in practice. 

Competition between neighbouring schools is fierce and must not be underestimated. There is every likelihood that this will only worsen and all schools must have a strategy in place to ensure their longevity and to future-proof their business. There is no place for complacency even if schools currently enjoy healthy pupil rolls and long waiting lists. Due to the competitive nature of the market and the pressure parents are facing with the affordability of fees, it is essential to offer good value for money. 

Providing a good education is no longer enough as there are plenty of schools that will do that, plus many excellent schools which do it for free! The emergence of ‘alpha’ schools is inevitable. These are schools which are popular, enjoy an excellent local reputation and will draw pupils away from other less highly regarded schools, leading to a number of closures. The ‘alpha’ schools will offer something different and will allow parents to feel that they are getting good value for money and the confidence that their hard earned money is being well spent together with the reassurance that any sacrifices being made are well worth it.

On the edge of financial viability

Much of this confidence will come from a feeling that the school knows their child well, treats them like an individual and cares for them as well as the knowledge that the school communicates regularly and with positivity, treating the parents with the same excellent customer care they would get from their favourite supermarket or car dealership. Schools have long held themselves above such things believing that education should not be seen as a business. However, the reality is that independent schools are businesses, often ones on the edge of financial viability and this can no longer be ignored.

The behaviours of any organisation are central to their success and schools are no different. Whilst all independent schools will proudly display their mission statement and values and principles, behaviours should go beyond written statements on a website or in the parent handbook. The behaviours need to be at the core of every policy, process, communication and action. All staff – teaching and non-teaching – need to understand how to act and behave, whether it is greeting a parent at the main reception, writing to them in an email or how to deal with a difficult meeting or parental concern.

Parents need to feel that they are spending their money wisely and that their final choice of school from a myriad others, was the right one. They need to be able to tell other parents, with pride, how special their child’s school is and how it differs from others. This will ensure open days are well attended and that pupil rolls remain healthy even in difficult financial times.

Competition between neighbouring schools is fierce and must not be underestimated

Staff welfare is a priority for longevity

Staff welfare is also essential for ensuring longevity and must be the priority for all heads and governing bodies. It can often be overlooked as schools are such busy places and the understandable pressures from pupils and parents usually take precedence. However, staff welfare needs to become part of the school’s culture, in the same way as safeguarding and health and safety have over the last 20 years. Robust processes need to be in place to ensure staff feel valued and are supported, especially during stressful times in the term. 

These can include dedicated and protected non-contact time, cover supervisors to manage staff absence, an easily accessible staff counsellor and as we have recently introduced, an additional half-day holiday to be taken at any point during the school year. Other simple and much appreciated measures we employ include healthy and substantial mid-morning snacks, a roaring fire in the staff room during the winter months and a very clear understanding that all staff, teaching and non-teaching, middle management and leadership are all one team working together to ensure that children receive the best possible education in an outstanding environment.

It is important that parents recognise and treat staff as highly qualified and dedicated professionals, listening to their advice and having confidence in the care and education of their children.

All schools need to work hard to ensure these behaviours are expected from all stakeholders and that it becomes an embedded culture of the school. Staff are a school’s most important resource; they need to be looked after and in return will ensure stability, a high standard of teaching and learning, and importantly, a happy school with a community focus. 

The ‘little big things’ count

Ultimately, parents want their children to be happy at school, make the best possible academic and social progress they can and for those at prep schools, ensure they move on to the senior school of their choice. As schools and teachers, we, of course, want exactly the same outcomes. It is always the ‘little big things’ which count the most: positive emails or phone calls home, individual birthday cards for every child, staff presence (and interest) at sports fixtures, concerts and other school activities, a well-organised and run school with clear routines and processes and most of all, a warm welcome to all parents who visit.

Successful schools which are here to stay need to be underpinned by a strong culture above anything else and by whole staff behaviours which ensure there is kindness, understanding and a pervading sense of quality. Policy statements and rhetoric aren’t enough; time and money needs to be spent to ensure that all stakeholders are part of the process to understand fully the ethos and philosophy of the school and what behaviours are the priority for everyone.  

At this stage it is essential to seek external support from consultants who understand schools as businesses to ensure that everyone can see the wood for trees – always very tricky for those of us who live and breathe school life.

Only then can a school move forward in such a competitive market with a strong sense of purpose, identity and distinctive culture; all of which are necessary to stand apart from the crowd, to be the school of choice and to be the schools that grow stronger and will still be thriving and growing in years to come.