Whilst the funding crisis for mainstream schools has been widely reported and discussed at the very highest level in government, what is perhaps less well known and understood are the financial challenges facing independent schools.
There is a perception – a wrong and misleading one – that all independent schools are awash with money. This is simply not the case and most schools seek external fundraising and donations to help continue offering the quality of education that our parents expect.
Take Tring Park School, where I have worked for the past two and a half years as director of development and external relations, and where my son enjoys an excellent education. We are a specialist performing arts school and provide a unique community for talented young people, regardless of means or background, who have a passion for acting, dance, musical theatre or commercial music. With around 370 pupils, we are also a relatively small school.
Parents are not necessarily from wealthy backgrounds or have the funds to pay for tuition fees on their own – many are what we might term the ‘squeezed middle class’ – and this makes fundraising ‘asks’ challenging. Additionally, we do not have a wealthy alumni to draw on, with the majority of our pupils going on to work in ballet or drama companies, or for themselves.
Then we have the bigger picture. Whilst education is faced with serious funding issues, there is even more pressure on the arts which is increasingly seen by government as less important. Trusts to support children through sixth form are drying up left, right and centre, and schools in major cities or with royal patronage are more successful in gaining funding.
Whilst education is faced with serious funding issues, there is even more pressure on the arts which is increasingly seen by government as less important
This is a shame as it means the next generation of talented artists is not coming through as it once did. We have a reputation in this country for West End theatre and a thriving dance, contemporary/classical ballet scene, however, there is a danger that we will lose out unless the funding picture changes dramatically. There is a real threat that we are becoming ‘the haves and have nots’ – restricting the participation of those with limited resources.
We champion education for every talented child; that means seeking external awards/grants. What we now term ‘development’ is a relatively recent thing for Tring Park. Previously the school had done the ‘science’ of the job, but not the ‘art’ – relationship-building within the community, speaking to people, getting out and about and raising awareness. We started from scratch, built all aspects of fundraising from the ground up and welcomed back alumni – building on our roots going back to 1945 when it was known as Arts Educational School, Tring Park, a dance school for girls.
Fundraising has become fundamental to Tring Park’s development plan to ensure the school attracts and retains the best pupils and is able to complete high-priority capital projects sooner than would otherwise be possible, to benefit current students as well as future generations. For a relatively small school these dual fundraising goals represent a huge challenge and are together the focus for our future.
We have recently raised funds for a new 70-bed boarding house with additional vocational teaching spaces. Phase two consists of a new art block with sixth form and day pupil facilities which will be the main focus of our development campaign this year. We also use a supporting platform called FundStar which enables parents from all walks of life to contribute to smaller projects, such as new outdoor gym equipment which can be used at evenings and weekends as well in school time.
Our objectives are simple: to make all parents feel they can contribute no matter what size their donation, that we value every donation and that the donations can have a direct positive impact on their children.
We tend to concentrate on the big projects and there is less money around for the smaller things that make a difference. There are parents, alumni and friends who cannot make the larger gestures, however, they still want to help in some small way, and this approach with smaller projects works for them.
Fundraising is so much more than shaking a can and calling people up. Development is about more than the bottom line – it is about raising awareness in, and giving support to, the local community, being open and generating goodwill.
From my perspective, I regularly attend networking events to learn about how development in other independent schools is working, adapting and changing to fit our school as needed. I am also fortunate to have support from the top and, whilst when I came to the school a lot of people were not aware of my role within the school, we have now got a consistent message across about the importance of fundraising and development.
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