Independent schools are facing a growing challenge. The best state schools are catching up with their academic record and, in terms of facilities, are encroaching on their traditional territory. The proportion of independent school students achieving the top grades at GCSE fell this year, while national averages in state schools improved. The trend is exemplified by the London Academy of Excellence where this year, one in 10 Year 13 students were offered places at Oxbridge leading it to be dubbed the ‘Eton of the East End’.
The standard of facilities at some state schools is also now rivalling those in the independent sector. This month, for instance, Ash Hill Academy in Doncaster unveiled its new £12m refurbishment, which includes pristine new tennis courts, while several state schools now offer competitive rowing, which was once exclusive to the independent sector, as an extracurricular activity.
Independent schools are also operating in a crowded market of their own. According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), there are now more such schools in the UK than at any time this century. Competition is abounding, and at a time when fees are rising above the rate of inflation – according to the ISC, fees rose by 3.4% last year with families now paying out £5,744 a term on average – aspirational parents might think twice about paying for independent education.
All these factors threaten to have an effect on the income streams of private institutions. So how can the independent sector differentiate itself? One way is to showcase its advantage in areas like drama and music – with their associated top-class facilities and the high quality of their cultural and built environments.
Leader of the pack
In terms of sport, recent figures show that independent schools have almost as many swimming pools – almost 600 – between them as the whole of the state school, higher education and further education sectors combined. Eight hundred and seventy-two have their own sports fields, at a time when many state schools’ have been sold off, while 781 have tennis courts and 568 have their own sports centre.
As for the arts, as Andrew Law, the Chairman of trustees for the Speakers for Schools charity has argued, in the ultra-competitive world of independent education, it’s now the multi-million-pound performing arts centre that holds the key to persuading prospective parents to part with their money. This is backed up by a report last year by the Institute of Education at University College London, which found the leading motives for parents to choose independent schooling was the wish for their children to gain better academic results through smaller class sizes and better facilities.
In the ultra-competitive world of independent education, it’s now the multi-million-pound performing arts centre that holds the key to persuading prospective parents to part with their money
Many independent schools are starting to make the most of this. More than 670 now have their own concert hall or theatre. These include Ibstock Place School in Roehampton, which opened a new theatre in 2015 comprising a stage, auditorium with seating for 300, orchestra pit, green rooms and gallery. Another is Queen Anne’s College, an independent girls’ school in Caversham, Berkshire, which has a performing arts centre with a 250-seat theatre. Both facilities take into account the aesthetic of the environment in which they sit, have a high-quality design and represent a core activity of the school.
An additional advantage to these kinds of facilities is income generation. With the financial pressures on the sector, independent schools need to be even more creative in seeking income streams that can help to offset rising costs. Many are now hiring out such state-of-the-art facilities for income. For example, St Edward’s School in Oxford has the award-winning North Wall Arts Centre, a proper theatre and art gallery, which hosts a programme of more than 100 public events per year. Gresham’s School in Norfolk has the Auden Theatre with an arts programme open to the public.
And Dulwich’s Alleyn’s School 350-seat theatre has hosted events such as a book reading by author Sebastian Faulks.
The best state schools may be starting to narrow the gap on their independent counterparts in terms of examination success, but most are less able to invest in the sort of facilities that enhance extra-curricular activities – which, as independent schools understand, are vital tools for improving student confidence, as well as giving the school a unique identity. The opportunity is there for independent schools to reclaim centre stage.