The challenges facing Independent Schools are many & varied. Some are seemingly far removed; others more immediate and the need to address them more pressing. However, regardless of the challenge, a challenge it remains and Independent Schools, especially small ones, must have a coherent range of strategies in place to face them. In fact such is the concern in the US that a report was commissioned by the NAIS as to the challenges facing Independent schools over the next 20 years.
In the broadest sense we will face challenges from the shifting regional demographic. An ageing population means fewer pupils to recruit. Furthermore, increased migration, a mobile workforce, improved technological literacy and a shift in societal values are all part of the challenge of the trends in society that we face.
Economic trends, too, present challenges. I’m just an educator so maybe my business colleagues can inform me better. Being a member of governor committees has lead me to recognise the difficulties posed by variation in City salaries and bonuses, changes in interest rates, insurance premiums and taxes and housing and property prices. Each of these contributes to the decision that parents have to make when considering independent education for their children.
The political and educational climate, although perhaps less imposing to us in some respects than our colleagues in the maintained sector, nevertheless must be considered. We now have the Charities Act with the need for the provision of public benefit schemes, creating partnerships and sharing resources. Alongside that are Government schemes such as Every Child Matters which brings with it the concept of wrap-around care (not uncommon to independent schools) and schools as centres for the provision of a wider range of child care through extended services and child care centres.
In addition there are challenges from the improvements in maintained sector educational provision, the rise in the number of homeschooled children and even the “corporatization” of independent education by companies such as Cognita or GEMS. Knowledge and understanding of child development, neuroscience and learning is deepening. The results of research are then published in easy-to-read books or in broadcast, print and on-line media, available to all parents and prospective parents. The challenge to independent schools is then to both reflect upon this research to inform current practices and also to communicate as completely as possible their philosophy of learning and teaching.
Technologically literate children must be engaged in order to learn and schools will have to face up to the fact that they must stay ahead of their pupils rather than risk being left behind in their wake and seen as an irrelevance.
A further responsibility is our duty of care to the world that we have borrowed from our children. The Stern Report last year sets a challenge to consider our approach to sustainability and our impact as a community on the environment.
So far, so good. Yet there are many more issues that somehow impact upon Independent Schools. Whether that is the revised Primary Strategy or the rising cost of school uniforms. NESTAs drive for the teaching of soft skills for future labour markets or whether 4x4s are really that bad. But it all leads into what I feel is the core challenge facing independent schools and that is Knowing What We Are.
It is rough for some independent schools. Numbers falter, income drops and the downward spiral begins. But, in what are potentially turbulent times for independent education, a school that is sure of its ethos and confident of its niche within the market is going to survive and, I believe, thrive.
It is a challenge to identify that niche in the market, for governors and head to work together on the school plan with strategic and sound development targets backed by a financial plan to matches this philosophy.
It is a challenge to take the community with us. To, in plain terms, ask parents to shell out money to buy into our school. It is essential to communicate our philosophy concisely and coherently.
It is a challenge to know what our parents want and how to give it to them without compromising the school’s aims and those of other parents while at the same time allowing all members of the school community to feel valued.