The recent merger between Sherborne School and Sherborne Preparatory School reflects a wider trend in the independent schools sector. It is one that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, but in our case the merger was already in motion before the pandemic hit.
In a town like Sherborne, where cooperation between three separate independent schools has long been the norm, a vertical merger such as ours makes particular sense. By joining with Sherborne Prep, we are able to leverage our scale to the benefit of pupils from pre-school age up to age 18.
The merger also makes the most of our connection with Sherborne Girls, enhancing the educational offer to parents and their children. Thanks to our close relationship, we offer children of all ages first-rate facilities, a rounded and stretching curriculum and a wealth of co-curricular activities. At senior school level, we combine the best of single-sex education with all the social benefits of a co-ed setting – and all in a single town.
An enhanced offer
Of most tangible benefit to the merged schools are the economies of scale that arise from functioning as one entity. Under the Sherborne Schools Group, which encompasses Sherborne School, Sherborne Prep and Sherborne International, we have considerable buying power with our supplier community. That helps us drive quality up and costs down, ensuring we deliver the best-value education to our pupils without compromising on our high standards.
A factor that affects all independent schools, and which has no doubt come into sharper focus during the Covid pandemic, is the challenge of keeping fees affordable. It has always been clear to me that the independent sector needs to deliver more than is available in the state sector if it is to be attractive to parents. This challenge is especially pertinent in times of economic uncertainty, since school fees can take up a larger proportion of a household’s disposable income when times are tough.
“Mergers offer a means for schools like ours to enhance our provision, without charging higher fees to do so.”
Mergers are an effective means of achieving the balance between quality and value. Not only can we negotiate for optimum pricing in procurement. We are also able to share facilities for the benefit of pupils. Consider, for example, Sherborne’s renowned music school, which is one of the finest in the country. Thanks to our merger, young musicians at the prep school now have the opportunity to practise, learn and develop their skills in this professional-standard environment, with no limits on their level of attainment.
As a parent whose children attended independent schools, I regard this as a compelling offer. We all want what is best for our offspring while ensuring we can afford the education they receive. Mergers offer a means for schools like ours to enhance our provision, without charging higher fees to do so.
In many cases, the school mergers and takeovers of the last 12 months have been driven by financial necessity. Smaller schools in particular have struggled to survive against the challenges of lockdowns and attendant fee discounts. Coupled with a significant loss in income from commercial lettings during vacation periods, many schools have simply reached the point where they cannot make ends meet.
In such circumstances, a merger becomes the only way of continuing to operate, albeit in a different form. It brings stability to pupils and their parents, though often results in uncertainty for teaching and support staff and a lack of continuity as the new institution emerges from the combination of two previously unconnected schools with no shared history or culture.
For us, that challenge has not been apparent. Sherborne Prep was in a healthy position financially, with a surplus budget every year. The merger with Sherborne School was not therefore driven by finances. Rather, it has been shaped by a sense of common purpose, and recognition of the profound benefits of working even more closely together.
The same but different
There is clearly a period of cultural readjustment for all parties in any merger, even when they have much in common. We have been very clear that each school in our group has a distinctive identity that is to be preserved. Sherborne Prep retains its own head, with the current postholder Nick Folland being replaced by Natalie Bone when he retires in the summer. While Sherborne’s headmaster Dr Dominic Luckett has executive responsibility for the whole Sherborne Schools Group, the day-to-day running of the prep school is overseen by its own senior leadership team.
Anyone familiar with the schools will know that we have a similar ethos. As with our partners at Sherborne Girls, we are committed to the flourishing of every pupil, giving them every opportunity to find their talents and prepare for a bright future. So the cultural transition necessitated by the merger has been straightforward: we have worked closely for many years, and therefore have a good understanding of the ties that bind us.
“The merger has been shaped by a sense of common purpose, and recognition of the profound benefits of working even more closely together.”
For all that, we are keen to treat certain elements of our operations as before. For example, admissions from Sherborne Prep to Sherborne School will continue to be separate, so as to ensure a level playing field with our other feeder schools. We are aware that Sherborne School isn’t the right choice for every boy in the prep school, and will retain the same approach to senior school transitions that has always been in place. Likewise, Sherborne Prep pupils are treated the same as any other when applying to Sherborne School.
By operating with one governing body and taking advantages of opportunities to collaborate across our adjacent sites, we are able to enhance the compelling educational offer that is at the heart of Sherborne. It is a beautiful town steeped in heritage, with brilliant access to the rest of the UK and beyond, which offers a first-rate education for all ages.
For us, the merger of Sherborne School and Sherborne Prep is manifestly worthwhile, and we look forward to building a bright future together: for our schools, our communities and, most importantly, the children whose education, formation and growth we are trusted to provide.