Independent schools looking to thrive in the face of financial and market challenges need to “stop eating each other’s lunch” and work together instead, a leading head has said.
Tom Lawson, head of Eastbourne College in East Sussex, said that maintaining a competitive advantage “paradoxically requires a less individualistically competitive mindset” and that schools needed to nurture relationships and co-operate with others in their areas.
This meant avoiding tactics such as offering excessive scholarship discounts, extending their age range or locking families into all-through schools following mergers, he said.
He said that rising fees due to labour costs and the prospect of VAT on fees meant families were already less confident about committing to the private education route, potentially leading “the pipeline to dwindle”.
He told an online Westminster Forum conference on the priorities for the independent schools sector: “Senior schools need the feed from preps and primaries, schools even in the same age range and area need each other for shared best practice, a thriving pool of experienced teachers, fixtures and creating the social norm that it’s ok to go private.
“If we’re going to continue to thrive we have to nurture those relationships, we have to stop eating each other’s lunch by excessive scholarship discounts to attract pupils, by extending our age ranges to grab a bit more of the market…by locking in families to all-through schools after mergers.”
He added: “For any individual independent school in a relatively strong position, superficially the impending failure of competitors already on the brink might seem attractive… but actually our schools exist in a state of ‘co-opertition’, simultaneously market rivals but highly reliant on co-operation with each other.”
He said that rising fees were “overwhelmingly” due to increases in the cost of staffing and unavoidable given that small class sizes are important to prospective parents.
“This is a fact that most of our detractors ignore in favour of their preferred but incorrect assumption that high and rising school fees are a result of gold plating facilities or the fallacy that someone is making profit from schools that are in the majority charitable institutions,” he said.
Artificial intelligence, he said, had potential to help with staffing costs, but was unlikely to have a “transformational impact” in the short to medium term.
Another speaker at the event, Melanie Sanderson, managing editor and education consultant at the Good Schools Guide, said that, as VAT on fees looms, the sector was looking ahead to a year that could “threaten the existence of a lot of our schools”.
She said it was key for the sector to “reconnect” with its traditional client base of the “ordinary middle classes”.
“Doctors, lawyers, local businessmen, politicians are the people we need to be thinking about, they are the people that anchor the independent sector in society and they’re the people who will hurt most if the sector is damaged.”
She said it was vital for schools to involve parents in what direction to take, and ask them what they were and were not prepared to pay for.
She said: “Few of them nowadays will expect branded toffee apples and champagne on bonfire night, but they may still think that the multi-million pound new cricket pavilion is a worthwhile investment, and they certainly won’t want holes in the roof of the changing room.”
Echoing Tom Lawson, she also encouraged schools to “think the unthinkable” by forming alliances with other schools that they might not otherwise have considered to deliver economies of scale.
“You don’t have to wait to be bought or join a group to do this,” she said.
The Westminster Forum conference on the priorities for independent education also featured discussions about assessment and curriculum design, pupil wellbeing, the new ISI inspection framework, school partnerships and setting up overseas branches.