‘Now is the age of anxiety …’.
Although penned by WH Auden some time ago, these words from one of the greatest English poets is absolutely the case today for both our students and our schools.
Many schools are working hard to address this issue at student level, proven by the number who are implementing our wellbeing programmes, attending wellbeing events and applying for wellbeing awards. But a careful investigation into the health and wellbeing of our schools, especially at prep and junior level, reveals that an increasing number are drifting into difficulty.
Recent statements from Ofsted concerning schools that persistently fail to meet standards are one example of the issue, but there are others. In a survey we conducted last year of the prep and junior schools within the five major associations (HMC/GSA, SOH, IAPS and ISA) there were some clear signs of vulnerability. And the most frightening aspect of all is that the issues are not being addressed in good time by seemingly competent boards of governors and their school management teams.
There are four key reasons why a school may become vulnerable:
1. Failure to meet compliance standards
2. Operational unsustainability
3. Singular fiasco
4. Poor governance and management
In most instances, prior planning and a willingness to confront issues head-on should lessen risk. Increasingly, however, we are finding ourselves called to give advice to schools already in extremis that raise the alarm too late.
There are around fifty key performance indicators (KPIs) that can track the progress of a school. The number obviously varies depending upon the type of school; day or boarding, junior or senior, etc. and the metrics not only cover the big five key areas of Academic, Curricular, Pastoral, Financial and Compliance performance but also drill-down into Recruitment, Admissions, Fee Discounting, and Extra-curricular Provision before considering Marketing and Stakeholder needs. Whether a school is high performing or no, these metrics remain the same, but the relevance of each may have specific connotations.
When these KPIs have been applied to schools in crisis, the root cause of the problem was that the governance or management team had taken their eye off the ball in one, or often, multiple areas of their operation. The key issue often became that they had also waited too long both to confront the issues or to ask for help. And as Einstein recognised, those people who created the situation are not the ones to remedy it.
There is little doubt the face and shape of independent education must change with the times. Today we are living in somewhat volatile times both in political and economic terms. As far as the latter is concerned our survey revealed that nearly a quarter of schools submitting a Charity Return in 2015 acknowledge a financial loss. A further 11% broke even. There were distinct regional patterns and these reflected areas where the DfE has acknowledged Academies and maintained schools also struggle. Although London and the South-East have less vulnerable schools, there remains specific pockets where there are concerns. Beyond this, it is largely only in the cities with universities that independent schools are thriving.
Now is not the time to stick one’s head in the sand. It is the time to ask the difficult questions, test a few difficult scenarios, look at alternative modelling suggestions and make sure your school has a strategy for the future. Again, in the words of Auden (a former Gabbitas Education tutor), ‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.”