The independent school sector has had to adapt very quickly over the last year to new ways of working as well as new ways of reaching the customer. Marketing teams have risen to the challenge embracing all things digital. Some schools have embraced digital learning and have included this in their curriculum and offering going forward. The last year has really pushed all parts of schools teams to be more agile and flexible.
Why? Because unlike the state sector, we do not rely on government support to balance the books. We are businesses and have to ensure we break even.
Parents are choosier, demanding and require individual attention, there is more competition from good state schools and state boarding schools as well as international competition from the US, Australia and Canada for boarding schools.
School leaders need to continue this agile working and use the last year to continue to drive forward new changes for the benefit of schools. Leaders need to foster a culture of commercialism balanced alongside education.
When I have visited schools in the US over the last few years, heads all told me that their focus was on recruitment and fundraising, with a little bit of time on safeguarding. Teaching is nowhere to be found in this list. When I spoke with heads, I sensed they were not always comfortable with this focus but they accepted that this was the lot of the 21st century head.
“School leaders need to continue this agile working and drive forward new changes for the benefit of schools.”
Schools have always been tanker-like when making changes. Slow. The last year has thrown this perception out of the water. Schools can be agile and move fast.
Being agile is all about delivering value to the customer faster. Requirements, plans, and results are continuously analysed so teams have a natural mechanism for responding to change quickly. This is what schools have been doing in abundance over the last year as “Cobra” style teams were set up to deal with the impact of Covid.
Now is the time to consider what the last year has taught us. We should not limit being agile to times of crisis. For example, schools need to look at the focus on term time over non-term time. Parents paying £13k for a day place and up to £40k for a boarding place, might feel they are justified in being able to contact a school outside of the 35 weeks a year, because the sector is a luxury product (and especially if the report on their child is sent the Monday after the end of term!).
Just like big business before and even more so now, schools need to get agile with regard to working practices fit for all staff in the 21st century to do an ever more demanding job. The last year has made many re-assess their work-life balance and environmental impact and schools have a duty to consider sustainability just like corporations do.
“Parents paying up to £40k for a boarding place might feel they are justified in being able to contact a school outside term time.”
Colleagues in the sector have told me that although they were successful at recruiting and fundraising remotely during the pandemic, this is all but forgotten as schools go back(wards). Some say that they can work remotely during the holidays but not term time (the focus on term time rears its head again!)
Finally a serious level of income is raised during the holiday time from letting of premises, holiday schools and clubs. Marketing, admissions and development teams are still working during holiday time to recruit more pupils and raise additional funds to add to the income pot. It does not stop just because the pupils are not there. Out of offices need to be directed to other staff to ensure a query can be dealt with holiday or no holiday.
Alignment of all staff (academic, support, domestic and estates) and valuing all staff contributions and differences is key to success. School staff are one team after all, all working for the good of the school. Leaders need to start by looking inward because a brand on the outside is only as strong as a brand on the inside.
All members of the team are all as equally important and all work equally hard. We need to value each for their different contributions to school life whether term time or all year round. Value is all part of personal wellbeing, something schools are keen to jump on the bandwagon on. As adults, we need to lead by example.