6 dangers facing independent schools

Covid may not have affected private schools as much as they feared – but they are not out of the woods yet, says David James
13th January 2022, 12:00pm
David James


6 dangers facing independent schools

Independent, schools, threats

Most independent schools began this new year in a spirit of optimism.  

It's easy, on the surface, to see why.

The pandemic has been less damaging for the sector than many predicted. Indeed, some schools in London and the South East are seeing higher demand than ever, with much of this interest coming from affluent "first-time buyers".

With day school fees of around £20,000 per year, and with some families gaining financial support from the schools themselves, it's understandable why demand is increasing in some areas.  

What's more, a Conservative government led by an Old Etonian is unlikely to prioritise attacking the sector when one of its biggest challenges is simply keeping all schools open. 

And Labour leader SIr Keir Starmer's promise to remove the charitable status of fee-paying schools provoked some noise but soon fizzled out. It is unlikely to win back those Red Wall voters, after all. 

Furthermore, the cancellation of examinations has led to the best results the sector has ever had, at both GCSE and A level. Little wonder that for some of the schools there is only a moderate appetite for a return to full GCSE and A-level examinations. 

But this optimism is, at best, short-termist and, at worst, self-delusional. 

Indeed, the challenges lying ahead are as significant as ever, and even if independent schools manage to negotiate the rapidly changing educational landscape, it is almost certain that over the next five years the sector will shrink; by how much is, to a great extent, in the hands of the schools themselves. 

The key challenges for independent schools

So what are the main dangers to independent schools? Here, in no particular order of threat, are six major issues at play.

1. The pandemic

While the short-term impact of the pandemic has not been as damaging as feared, the medium- to long-term consequences of Covid remain mostly unknown - but it is unlikely to be good news for independent schools, and in particular prep and boarding schools. 

These sectors-within-a-sector have relied on international students for many years, but between 2020 and 2021 they saw a reduction of 8,905 boarders, and nearly half of those were from overseas.

For some rural schools charging fees in excess of £40,000 losing even two or three boarders is a serious blow. Such trends are unlikely to be reversed.

2. The rising cost of living

Contrary to urban myth, many parents who send their children to an independent school are not Russian billionaires but "normal people" who have financial pinch points, too.

Tax rises, inflation, a rise in energy bills, a rise in travel costs and an increase in salaries they may have to pay staff if they run their own business will all have an impact.

With parents being squeezed, bursars will be unwilling to increase fees, but the pressure to do so - after freezing them for two years in many cases - will be intense. 

3. Teachers' Pension Scheme

Since the government increased the rate of employers' contributions to the Teachers' Pension Scheme in 2019, a quarter of independent schools have left it. 

This exodus is unlikely to slow down as schools continue to look at ways of saving money. 

Industrial action has dogged such decisions, creating acrimony within affected schools. But for those schools that have left the TPS, retaining and attracting experienced staff will become an increasing challenge. Put simply: if you're a teacher in the TPS, why would you join a school that has left it?

4. Politics 

The Conservative government may be naturally less hostile to independent schools but the pressure on the chancellor to raise funds to service the increased national debt will test those old allegiances.

Independent schools could see renewed interest in their charitable status from the Treasury, but other benefits, such as the Continuity of Education Allowance for Armed Forces personnel (which is hugely valued by some schools), will be scrutinised like never before. 

Added to this is the fact that the majority of MPs were educated at comprehensives and one can easily see how those old school ties will continue to slacken in the corridors of Westminster. 

5. Universities

One of the main reasons why independent schools are so attractive to parents is they have traditionally been very good at getting their children into highly selective universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

But this is changing. In 2014 Eton had 99 offers from Oxbridge but this had dropped by half by 2021. 

It is undoubtedly a good thing that more students from state schools are gaining access to these institutions, but the impact on the independent sector if such trends continue will be significant. 

6. Future pupils

Looking to the longer term and where future pupils will come from is also not without concern.

There's no denying that independent schools are expensive and for young people today, many of whom cannot afford to get on to the property ladder, the prospect of sending their children to a school that charges them more than they earn is a fantasy.

How the sector reaches out to today's twentysomethings and thirtysomethings will be a monumental challenge of the future - and that may be subject to global economic fluctuations way beyond any school's control.

The unknown unknowns

And then, of course, there are the "unknown unknowns", or the sudden developments of events (such as those we saw with the Everyone's Invited reports of sexual abuse), that can quite quickly put schools in the national spotlight, and on the defensive.  

Some of these threats will not materialise but many undoubtedly will, and when they do the sector will need to be bold and articulate in defending itself. 

It has few political friends left, and for too long now it has turned within itself, looking to avoid attention.  

Yet a sector so skilled at producing self-confident and articulate young adults needs these qualities among its leaders more than ever, and on a national stage. 

It needs to be bullish about its achievements, and the contribution it makes to the economy. 

Indeed, no country - least of all one adapting to the uncertainties of a post-Covid, post-Brexit world - can afford to see some of its best schools close: they should be the engines of future innovation. 

Society needs diversity of thought and experience: independent schools contribute to this, but their ability to do so in the future looks more fragile than ever. 

David James is a deputy head of an independent school in London

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