The silent demise
Tim Wilbur, Director of School Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, explains why schools should face the facts before it's too late
April is the cruellest month” begins T S Eliot’s magisterial poem The Wasteland. It is also the cruellest month for some in the school calendar, and this year was no exception with yet another reasonably sized and long-standing independent school closing. There may be others heading in the same direction but those involved with these schools do their very best to hide the situation: hence the title of this article.
Given the general funding crisis in the maintained sector and the closure of educational establishments from infant schools to university technical colleges, perhaps we should not be too surprised. However, we firmly believe that some of the closures in our sector need not have happened at all. There appears to be a general unwillingness in many endangered schools to face the facts and more importantly to ask for help before the axe falls. To our recent knowledge some schools have been closed without reference to pupils, parents and staff. The fact such a fait accompli can occur in the charity sector somewhat defies belief.
The main reason for the silence is largely because a school trades on its good name: confidence, even in the direst of circumstances, is the name of the game. Schools fear, and rightly so, the adverse effect on pupil numbers an admission of decline will have. However, the corollary – pupils, parents and staff having no school to return to in September – may be considered a worse predicament. Furthermore, it is not just about the school and those immediately affected; often whole communities around the school face a downturn in esteem and business. So it is time the sector addressed this.
Independent education cannot afford to lose any more of its schools. Contrary to some popular opinion, its schools provide far more into their surrounding communities than many maintained schools. As charitable organisations, they understand the full meaning of the word ‘giving’. They not only provide education to a comprehensive intake of pupils, in these days where the talk is of social inclusion and mobility they provide more than their share of opportunities.
Is this article scaremongering? The maintained sector has definite number thresholds with which it considers the viability of schools. In a recent in-house analysis, these numbers were considerably above a very large proportion of numbers in independent school. There are over 400 schools with less than 150 pupils. Although the vast majority of these are pre-preparatory and preparatory schools, there are a few senior schools in this mix. The recently released Independent School Council Annual Report also points to vulnerability in the sector. In the worst analysis, if there is anyone out there in a single-sex, regional school with boarding, times could be very hard indeed!
There is little doubt that the current economic climate is not the best. The situation is cyclical and things will improve, but in every recent downturn fewer independent schools have emerged from the situation than prior to it. Some vulnerable schools will also emerge stronger but this will be due to benefiting from the pupil gain from others’ loss. At the other end of the spectrum, the ships of state will sail serenely on, largely as they have the capacity to be flexible. Overall, it is highly unlikely the sector will ever exceed 7% and the main focus should be to keep this as stable as possible.
To anyone out there in trying circumstances, please speak up in good time to an educational consultant who can provide bespoke and confidential advice.
If April is to be the cruellest month, it would be as well to be prepared well in advance, as to say people’s lives depended on it would be to understate the obvious.