The recession may be over but the need for independent schools to stay focused on finance will never go away, writes Simon Fry
‘Be prepared’ might be an appropriate motto for schools when they’re looking to maintain or enhance their financial security. With forethought, revenue streams other than fees can be identified, nurtured and expanded while the processing of fees can be made easier and more economical and efficient via the adoption of a plan freeing up staff time for more productive use. Brand protection – a concept unheard of in previous decades – should be part of a school’s armoury when seeking to ensure that the financial future is rosy.
The Institute of Development Professionals in Education (IDPE) is the UK’s leading schools’ development membership organisation and a registered charity. It defines development in education as: “The process by which schools seek to engage more effectively with their alumni, parents and other stakeholders with the aim of generating financial and other contributions towards a school’s strategic objectives.”
The institute’s words are echoed by Eric Young, governor of Fettes College. “All schools with ambition must have a development office and any school that does not have dedicated fundraising professionals will be lucky to survive in the current competitive environment.” The IDPE’s figures, released in August 2015, endorse this: income from professional fundraising in schools first hit £100m in 2011, while in the last year it has grown 15 percent from £130m to £150m. In 2014, the number of schools raising more than £1m rose from 23 to 28. Total fundraising receipts, before costs, account for three percent of total net fee income, while every £1 invested in fundraising sees a return on investment of £3.75 for philanthropic income.
Schools not embracing development run a very real risk of being left behind – in the last four years the number of independent schools with development offices has increased five-fold. Moreover, competition is not just from within the independent sector; state schools now represent 10 percent of IDPE’s membership.
Oundle School’s director of development Matthew Dear takes a historical view of finance. “Schools like ours are long-standing philanthropic institutions, whose development has always depended on voluntary support. That is as it should be, with the overwhelming majority of fee income applied to educating today’s children. The effort applied to fundraising and development has undoubtedly increased, and many school governors wish to maximise donations for capital programmes and for bursaries. Arguably, the only way to do both adequately is to expand the capacity for fee support at least in step with changes in fees. All the while, we seek to keep a tight rein on spending and seek marginal cost advantages wherever we can.”
Oundle’s new SciTec building under construction
In a highly competitive independent sector reputation is vital to long-term success and, as a result, crisis situations are potentially very damaging, says Richard Moxon, head of education at Marsh. “A crisis can take many forms, from fire, flood, and staff misconduct to a serious outbreak of illness or cyber break-in,” he says. “But all have one thing in common; they have the potential to be hugely detrimental to a school’s reputation.
“Mitigating that damage is about communication – indeed, the importance of effective communication throughout a crisis, not just at the end, cannot be overstated. It can help to manage perception across staff, pupils, parents and the local community, protecting staff recruitment and retention, as well as the school’s ability to attract pupils.
“In short, managing a crisis effectively can be absolutely vital to protecting an independent school’s long-term financial health. Interested parties should be kept informed, leaving no room for inaccurate rumour and addressing any negative perceptions quickly, truthfully, and effectively. Schools should implement a plan that considers who will communicate, with whom (including the media) and how – be it via the school website, text messages or email. They should also retain a specialist PR agency when the time is right – this may well be provided for as part of the school’s existing insurance cover. The message is simple. To protect the school’s financial health and its future, be prepared to communicate quickly, efficiently, and consistently.”
When it comes to paying school fees, parents are increasingly choosing Premium Credit’s School Fee Plan. Registered in more than 400 independent schools, it allows tens of thousands of parents to pay fees monthly by direct debit, as opposed to a single upfront charge.
Premium Credit’s head of education services Gavin Worrall says: “Our extensive experience of working with both parents and schools for more than 20 years has enabled us to deliver a simple and convenient method to help smooth the cost of private education.”
School Fee Plan has seen business growth accelerate following the introduction of a portal for real-time, paperless parent applications backed up with an e-signature capability. All compliance, governance and checks are completed within a matter of seconds. The benefits for schools include an increased cash flow and a reduction in administration, freeing up resources for use in more important matters and mitigating the regularity risk attached to running an in-house scheme. Parents benefit from enhanced cash flow and a short and easy online application form. Furthermore, those additional costs that may crop up throughout the year, like music lessons and school trips, can also be added to the scheme.
Any school that does not have dedicated fundraising professionals will be lucky to survive in the current competitive environment – Eric Young
The plan has received much positive feedback, with Ms Marshall, a parent at the Grey House School, saying: “Having used School Fee Plan from both a parent’s perspective and also through my work as a bursar at an independent prep school, I would highly recommend it due to its excellent customer service, ease of use and competitive rate.” Mr Heilling, a parent at Harrow School, describes the plan as “an excellent way of spreading fees, along with excellent service”, while Ms Izekar, a parent at Queen Anne’s School, praises the “great, professional, friendly, helpful staff. Highly recommended.” Over 20% of independent schools now choose to partner with School Fee Plan.
The largest area of expenditure in all schools is staff costs. Payroll costs can therefore be expected to receive a lot of attention during the budgeting process, but it is important schools do not lose sight of the need to monitor and control other expenditure.
Photo courtesy of Badminton School
At Badminton School, the two largest non-staff budgets are utilities costs and food, as bursar Tim Synge explains: “We manage energy costs with the assistance of an energy broker, which leaves our food costs to be scrutinised by us. Expenditure is a substantial six-figure sum; how do we control this? Many schools work on a food cost per head and it is important, particularly in boarding schools, to break down the daily rate into a food cost per meal or service. For schools which, like Badminton, run right through from three to 18, it also makes sense to split budgets between senior and junior: an 18-year-old who has just returned from a school match may well be hungrier than a three-year old who is trying out school food for the first time.”
Tim recommends doing the mealtime maths. “There are industry average statistics available, which might offer a useful reference point, and a number of catering consultants with expertise in the education sector can also offer advice in this area. For example, a school might expect the cost per pupil for morning break to cost between 15p and 25p per day. Once this is set, it is not a question of simply multiplying this number by the pupil roll; schools should consider whether they expect – or achieve – a 100 percent take-up of morning break among their pupils. There should of course be a 100 percent take-up at lunch!”
A dynamic approach to development can bring schools vital funds while, at the same time, engaging alumni through modern communication methods. Such methods can also be used to protect a school’s good name, thereby protecting income. While a reputation may be an intangible asset, it definitely has a bearing on a school’s balance sheet.
IDPE W: www.idpe.org.uk
Marsh W: www.uk.marsh.com/education
Premium Credit’s School Fee Plan W: www.sfpschoolfees.co.uk
Badminton School W: www.badmintonschool.co.uk
Oundle School W: www.oundleschool.org.uk