Let’s get Practical

Last month’s Practical Strategies Conference saw key players from the independent education sector gather for a day of serious talking

The setting felt just right: the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall is the sort of place where you can smell the power, touch the history. But it’s no museum – portraits of historical noteworthies sit alongside flatscreen TV monitors, and the delegates at this conference were in no mood to look to the past or rest on their laurels. The headmasters, bursars, governors and lawyers were here to listen and learn, and also to provide their tuppence worth, unified in their desire to move the independent education sector towards a sustainable future. The mood remained upbeat and yet cautionary; visionary, but also highly pragmatic.

Nor surprisingly at an event hosted by Veale Wasbrough Vizards (VWV), legal issues were never far from the forefront. Conference chair, Cedric Clapp, chair of governors from Blundell’s school, set the tone in his introduction: “The economy has moved on but the sector continues to face challenges. We live in a legal culture, where parents are more likely to complain … you really need your lawyer on speed dial.”

Matthew Burgess, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, and soon to join VWV, presented a paper on the value of independent schools to the UK economy, a subject covered in IET when it was first issued earlier this year. “It’s important to step back from the nitty gritty of school life and provide an overview,” Matthew asserted. “We need to fight back against negative publicity.”

He hammered home the message of the extent to which the private sector both saves the taxpayer money and contributes to the economy. The headline figure extrapolated by Oxford Economics is an annual contribution to GDP of £9.5bn – greater than the contribution of Liverpool, or the BBC, with each pupil accounting for half a job.

Picking up on the CBI’s assertion that “There is solid evidence that education lies at the heart of a sustainable growth strategy”, he focused on the Finnish education system. It has been estimated that the total gain to UK GDP over the lifetime of a child if the UK reached Finland’s level of educational achievement would be a not-inconsiderable £8 trillion. “And private schools are already at a higher level than Finland’s schools.”

Mind-blowing stats, but Matthew was keen for these to be drilled down to grassroots level, telling delegates that Oxford Economics have built a tool which allows a school to work out its own impact on the economy. He urged schools to use this and compile dossiers of their impact, which they should have ready for meetings with local MPs, Chamber of Commerce and so on.

After Matthew’s upbeat overview, it was the turn of Mungo Dunnett, a management consultant with a background in banking. This charismatic Scotsman offered a few reality checks for the sector (he has consulted for 76 schools in the last four years), admitting that he’s often accused of being a doom-monger: “There are inexorable trends but there are ways of subverting them… As Darwin pointed out, survivors in the evolutionary struggle are those most responsive to change – the number of pupils you have in your school is the number you deserve.

“A fair proportion of schools are not realising the way things are going… Since 1964, school fees have increased by three and a half times (allowing for inflation). Since 2003, school fees have doubled, while managerial incomes have only increased by 40 per cent. Since 2007, fees have gone up by 40 per cent – even during a time of recession.”

He looked at other trends too – how traditional parents of private school kids such as doctors and lawyers are dropping out, especially from the boarding school option. They may have been replaced to some extent by the new breed of super-rich, but these people are consumers, with no feel for the tradition of independent schools. They are more litigious, and if you raise their expectations too high, they will act.

He highlighted another inexorable trend – the rise of co-ed: “Single-sex schools will only survive if they are really good – they can become a successful niche.”

Mungo also focused on striking trends within the boarding sector, where overseas pupils now account for a whopping 34 per cent of intake. He did not mince his words – “It’s not the pattern we want” – pointing out that the Chinese represent the hardest challenge in terms of integration, while another growth market – Russians – were particularly problematic (“I know of one school which had 12 Russian pupils – of which 11 were subsequently expelled!”).

For UK-based boarders – who represent just over half of intake – an increasingly important trend is shrinking catchment areas. Parents are both more hands-on and less time-rich. They expect to see their children excelling on the sporting front or in the theatre, and also are more likely to want to see them at weekends. “There’s nothing you can do to change this – you simply have to be staggeringly better than your competitors.” And Mungo’s vision of a boarding school in 20 years’ time? “A school with a Travelodge attached.”

What to do? Mungo acknowledged all the more obvious ways in which a school can maintain or improve its status – quality of teaching, academic excellence, pastoral care etc – but chose to focus on often ignored factors such as dealing with middle-ranking pupils, who will often fall between the cracks, but whose parents still expect so much. “You’re not just looking after the child, you’re looking after the parent,” he said. “Communication between staff, parents and children is at the heart of it all.”

With breakout sessions galore, I chose ‘Handling a crisis – how to respond to allegations of historic child abuse’, a fictional, but all-too-realistic case study, presented by Tabitha Cave and Simon Bevan from VWV, and John Eisenhammer of Strategic Communications, who specialises in helping schools defend their reputation.

The scenario probably had a familiar ring to many of those present: a former pupil accusing a teacher still in situ of vague but serious abuse. Delegates were given letters and emails indicating a growing crisis as a Daily Mail journalist threatens to open up this unsavoury can of worms, and asked to suggest the best ways to react. Should the teacher be suspended? At what point should the police become involved? The format was relaxed but informative – the delegates had as much to contribute to the unfolding drama as the lawyers, and the many issues raised were dealt with pragmatically.

The next presentation – ‘The life of a head – key messages from the heads’ time survey’, presented by Tim Baines, MD of Baines Cutler Solutions (BCS) – had a particular resonance for the audience. BCS were commissioned by HMC to conduct a survey in summer 2013 on the way heads spend their time. From the outset, Tim emphasised the unique role of the headteacher in an industry where “the customer is also the product” and where the boss (head) is expected to know and meet all children and parents.

During their very long working week (approx. 70 hours), heads attend seven meetings a day (81 per cent of their time), of which just under half involve parents, students and staff. “No sane CEO in the business world would do this,” pointed out Tim, but heads have little choice, parents and staff seeing it as a “divine right” to have this sort of access.

The problem with this workload is that it leaves little time for dealing with genuine crises, such as employment disputes or historic allegations. According to the survey, a school will face an average of 1.2 crises a year. In other words, it’s statistically likely that a head will be faced with at least one crisis, and should therefore assume that they will happen. When they do, the areas which invariably suffer are marketing and dealing with prospective students. Heads should also gear themselves up for serious overtime – during times of crisis, heads estimate that their working week increases to an eye-watering 90 hours.

Solutions? Tim’s suggestions included: better crisis scenario planning; reducing the routine teaching load of the senior management team; and possibly more routine delegation of traditional headmasters’ roles.

A more radical idea thrown out to the floor was that of changing the leadership structure by splitting the principal role from the senior school head role. It brought to mind that modern footballing phenomenon whereby some clubs employ a director of football and a head coach – controversial and not always successful. Tim broadly favoured this idea and has met some heads who are evangelical about it.

After a splendid lunch, I was ready for another portion of the ever-quotable Mungo Dunnett. In his second presentation, ‘Practical ways to improve your school and its educational reputation’, Mungo revisited some of the themes from his earlier talk, in a relaxed, off-notes Q&A session.

Modern parents, he argued, are like little birds – constantly looking around. A head’s task is to get these parents to do something contrary to their nature – to leave their child at your school, to trust you. To achieve this, simply fobbing them off won’t work. The key is to convince the parent that the school knows the child, that their child’s potential is being optimised. This is more important than the school’s academic statistics.

Expanding on his views on the problematic ‘middle-rankers’, who neither excel nor fail, but can easily feel neglected, he returned to his theme of communication: “How do parents read newsletters? They look for their child’s name! They want, above all, individualised, personalised information about their child. Personal congratulations from a teacher when a top mark is achieved counts for so much more than a newsletter from the marketing department which opens ‘Dear valued customer…’ This applies too to bad news – don’t leave this until parents’ evening. Approach them early, with the message, ‘How are we going to work together to turn this round?’”

Good teaching, of course, remains the key: “The number one investment for any school is its common room. Staff should be proud to teach at your school – and you’ve got to create that ethos. You should aspire to a self-policing common room. Weaker staff need to go. Their influence can be toxic.”

In the ongoing struggle to keep pupil numbers up, retaining children into the sixth form is one battle that some schools are losing, asserted Mungo. His advice: “Both children and parents need to be considered: often year 10/11 kids know more about local competitor sixth-form colleges than they do about their own school. They might be getting bored – same old thing, same rules. And parents are more attuned – they see year 11 as a time to re-evaluate, especially in single-sex schools – they might think it’s time for their child to go co-ed, in preparation for university life.

“The main reason for leaving at year 11 is not educational, it’s social. Which is why it’s vital that you make the sixth-form experience fun, vibrant, semi-adult, different. Try buddying up sixth formers with children from year 10/11. Make sixth form cool!”

The final session of a genuinely fascinating day saw Mungo Dunnett, Matthew Burgess, as well as Mark Steed, principal, Berkhamstead Schools Group, and Simon Bevan from VWV, doing their best to answer some broad questions from an attentive, intelligent audience.

Biggest changes in private education in next ten years?

Mark: “Fewer independent schools, fewer girls-only schools, more bigger schools, more mergers. Technology will not take over – the teacher will still be king.”

Mungo: “Schools will be better – because we are being forced to up our game.”

Will the independent sector still be relevant in ten years’ time?

Mungo: “Yes, people want the best for their child. We need to be demonstrably the best, and we need to stop pricing ourselves out of the market… But there will always be a market.”

Matthew: “When polls ask the question: ‘If money were no object, would you choose private education for your children?’, those answering ‘Yes’ have increased from 50 per cent to 60 per cent in recent times. But if prices go too high then, yes, we would become irrelevant.”

What should a new head address in his first year?

Mungo: “Identify and exit your weakest staff.”

Matthew: “Discover your school’s USP – what is it treasured for?”

Simon: “Find a good firm of lawyers!”

Amen to that. 

This article was written by Independent Education Today editor Dave Higgitt

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