The silver-lined Covid cloud
Amidst the chaos, anguish and turbulence caused by this beast of a virus, an unlikely pocket of progress lies smoldering in the corner of the independent school common room.
For many years, heads, bursars, directors of finance and their teams have fought to explain and engender understanding of the identity, needs and concerns of their schools as a business.
It is not uncommon to see the bursar, head, marketing manager, registrar or director of development stand up at the September INSET and try to convince 150 academic staff that they are actually part of a multi-million pound business which requires them to be ambassadors, salesmen and women and PR consultants on a daily basis. And all too often, they are met with a lack of genuine understanding, or at best, surface level understanding coupled with a belief that the business side of the school is of little concern to them.
As a former teacher and senior leader myself, it is easy to understand the push back here from academic staff, who are rightly concerned first and foremost, with educating children. Ensuring their pupils’ academic, emotional and individual needs are met, is for almost every teacher the number one priority, and pondering the business needs of the school will always be a secondary consideration.
Whilst this unsettling virus has brought with it stories of innovative teaching, creative perseverance and inspirational learning, sadly it has also brought tales of staff furloughing, redundancies, restructuring and ultimately, job losses. And we are not even back to school properly yet, nor have we felt the full force of the economic impact of Covid-19. Not to mention Brexit.
In the last three months, independent school staff have had no choice but to become painfully aware of the vulnerability of their organisation. Just like every other employee in the commercial sector. But whilst this realization has in part, come about through tragic circumstance, it is perhaps a silver lined cloud for longer term success in the sector.
When all school staff better understand the school as a business, with its tough strategic decisions and internal financial wrangles, the future of the school will surely be more secure. Surely, staff who understand the balance sheet, the supply and demand, the importance now more than ever, of value for money and five-star customer service, are a staff who will ultimately help to secure the longevity and success of their school.
As we hear of independent schools closing, with another only last week, totalling at least seven at the time of writing, and teaching staff being furloughed, there is now a genuine interest emerging in the business mechanisms of a school. Bursars and Heads, sometimes falsely accused of being rather clandestine with accounts, have been forced to share their balance sheets with not only parents, but also academic staff. I know of several schools who, in the last couple of months, have bared their bottom lines and collaborated with teaching and support staff to generate ideas for reducing costs and generating income.
Cost reduction is at the forefront of most independent school agendas right now, but scoping income generation shouldn’t be far behind. The majority of schools are sitting on hugely under used assets, and now is the time to think outside of the educational box to explore commercial opportunities. Opportunities which could just be the difference between the success and failure of the school as a business.
I read an article in the online magazine ‘Countryfile’ recently, about how UK farmers, faced with increasing energy costs, lower food prices and the impact of Brexit, are having to find new ways to increase revenue. Such innovative ideas as hosting festivals, selling a wider and more diverse range of products, and offering holiday accommodation on site, have meant that farms are able to thrive, or at least keep their heads above water at this difficult time. Far be it from me to suggest that schools should host the next Glastonbury Festival, or start offering 5 Star holiday lets, but many schools are learning to sweat their assets. Facilities lettings are becoming a profitable side line, with the use of a school for weddings, venue hire, film locations and similar ventures becoming more commonplace. Thinking outside the box is key; I know of a school that sells its own honey, another cheese, and another its own wine!
Consultation with staff surrounding cost reduction is sadly commonplace right now, but bringing academic and support staff on board with income generation projects should also be prioritized. Before schools consider selling out, or worse still, closing down, income generation scoping projects should be on the table. And whilst we are involving staff in the process, why not involve Sixth Form business studies students too, and alumni? A wealth of future entrepreneurs lay at our fingertips.
Smaller schools, and those without huge reserves or investment portfolios need to think creatively. And they need to think now. But the hope is, that one positive side effect of covid-19, means that all school staff will be on board with securing the future of the school. All school staff should now understand one thing. Yes, independent schools are places of education and lifelong learning for children. But like it or not, they are also a business.
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