Despite many independent schools having recently closed, or announced their intention to do so since the onset of the pandemic, seemingly the latest good news stories suggest that the road ahead may be less bumpy for the independent sector.

If suggestions in the media that independent school enquiries are up 30 per cent is true, then maybe we shall reap these rewards in the near future, and perhaps the future looks less bleak. But I remain cautious, and never one to leave things to chance, my advice to schools is to ensure safety nets are in place to catch the school’s balance sheet, should the rosy predictions not come good.

In a recent article I suggested that one of the positives of Covid-19, was how academic and support staff were finally beginning to understand their schools as a business. This slow realization, has meant that more and more staff are appreciating a bursar and head’s juggling act, where they keep not only educational, but also financial balls in the air.

"Schools are just as vulnerable as an independent restaurant or car showroom."

If staff are beginning to understand that their school is just as vulnerable as the latest independent restaurant or car showroom, and that the balance sheet matters, we could be ready to lead our schools into the exciting world of business development. A daily strategic exercise for most corporates, but one which has been alien to many independent schools thus far.

Heads, bursars, directors of finance and indeed all school staff, need to start thinking outside the parental fee income box, and wear a business development hat.

What is commonplace to SMEs and even most sole traders, is not de rigeur for schools. Most SMEs will have some kind of business development personnel, or at the very least, have business development very much at the forefront of their minds. And yet as independent schools, we seem to be missing this trick. We place all our income generating eggs into one fee income basket, employing marketing personnel to make sure the admissions funnel is always full.

But why, amidst a climate of financial disruption, uncertainty, and a fluctuation in admissions figures, are schools not looking beyond this channel to ensure the longevity, sustainability, potential growth and improvement, and to protect against future economic risks?

By exploring opportunities for income generation through a range of short, medium and longer term projects, schools can ensure that they are not wholly reliant on fee income. Many schools are sitting on proverbial goldmines, but simply not sweating their assets.

Diversifying revenue streams can help a school to maximise use of school assets and staff, weather economic shocks and cope better with short term fluctuations in numbers. Additional benefits of such diversification, include the potential to increase engagement within the school and local community, and an enhanced reputation in the marketplace for education, innovation, business, and community enterprises, whilst remaining true to its marketplace, ethos and values.

"Facilities lettings improvements and expansion can bring quick wins."

The income generation formula can be individually tailored to each school’s needs, but essentially the project identifies opportunities to increase current commercial revenues, analyses other schools and/or organisations’ external programmes, produces mini business plans that identify additional potential revenue streams, and finally makes recommendations for what resource may be required to deliver the programme.

The outputs can be significant, and some aspects of the project, for example facilities lettings improvements and expansion, can bring quick wins, whilst other, medium to longer term projects such as online learning programmes and nursery provision, can be more forward thinking and provide a stable income stream for the longer term.

"Schools who share the vision with their whole community will be the winners in the long term."

Some schools are going further still, and breaking boundaries with their initiatives. The Bond Issue scheme to raise funds to develop Sixth Form provision at King’s Gloucester, was inspirational in its strategy, slick in its planning, and the result, a stunning Sixth Form building refurbishment turned around in 12 months. The project was visionary, the results spectacular and testimony to the potential of thinking outside of the box.

For any income generation project to be successful, a committed team is essential, and it is vital to ensure there is an opportunity for anyone in the school community to be involved. As with most projects, those schools who share the vision with their whole community, will be the winners in the long term. Schools communities are mines of untapped talent, and host to a plethora of business development resource, particularly within their alumni body.

Ultimately, it will probably be worth creating a specialist business development role, someone with proven skills, to draw together all the projects and oversee the marketing, delivery and growth of the initiatives. But this role should be self-funding and certainly the rewards should follow quite soon after.

Business development may not have been at the forefront of school agendas until now. But with a rocky and uncertain road ahead in unchartered waters, schools who don’t even explore these possibilities could be missing a trick and furthermore, left behind by those who do!

For more information and ideas, join Rachel in her webinar: Income Generation – Thinking Outside the Box on Wednesday 9th September at 4pm. Sign up here.