Independent schools are being advised that they should capitalise on the financial difficulties of their state school rivals to attract more parents.
With state education facing swingeing cuts, there will “never be a better time” for private schools to seize the opportunity and cut their fees, according to Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council.
His comments this week came as Tony Foot, director of the Department for Education’s Education Funding Group, acknowledged that “the next few years are going to be highly challenging” for state schools.
He told headteachers at a conference in London that this was because per-pupil funding would fall in real terms to “lower than the system has been used to over many years” and “also because [cost] pressures on the schools’ budget are clearly running at a pretty high level”.
Mr Lenon believes that the independent sector should take advantage. “Now is the time to reduce your fees,” he said in a speech offering advice to private school heads.
“Inflation is essentially zero and state schools are having their budgets cut over the course of this Parliament by between 8 and 15 per cent. So, your rival state schools are definitely going to be cutting back on teachers and staff,” he said.
“I am a governor of a big comprehensive school in west London and we are going to be cutting at least six subjects in order to balance our budget.”
‘Cut your fees’
Mr Lenon, who was head master of Harrow School for 12 years, said that the cuts will also prevent state schools from investing in new buildings that could make them more attractive to parents. That, he said, offered the feepaying sector an opportunity, particularly in less affluent areas. “If you’re a school that is worried about your local grammar school, let’s say, you can be pretty sure that they’re not about to embark on some grand building project. They’re not about to start offering lots of minority subjects,” Mr Lenon said.
“For 20 years, fees have run ahead of inflation, so now is the time to bring things to a halt. I can’t see there will ever be a better time.”
Fees for independent schools have soared over the past two decades (see box, ‘Average termly fees’, above), pushing many out of reach for all but the most affluent families. According to research by school consultancy firm Baines Cutler, middle-income parents, who make up private schools’ core market, now spend an average of 50 per cent of their household earnings to send two children to a private day school. Back in 1996, parents spent 36 per cent.
Some independent schools have struggled in the past decade – with 27, predominantly in the North, moving across to the state sector because of difficulties in attracting parents capable of paying fees.
Last week, Sunderland High School became the latest independent school to announce plans to close, after a six-figure loss last year.
Now, Mr Lenon believes that similar schools have an opportunity to gain some breathing space. He said that one of the main ways that they could reduce their fees would be to cut teacher numbers and increase class sizes.
“Personally, I would say to a private school that is looking to control their costs, the first thing you need to look at is class size, because there is no obvious relationship between class size and performance, despite what parents may think,” he said.
He cited research findings (see box, ‘Class size “has little impact”’, above) and said that schools should end the “false belief” that smaller class sizes were a good thing.
Mr Lenon added: “The more teachers you employ, the more less-good teachers you are likely to have in that group. It’s far better for a school to have big sets and a smaller group of teachers and they are all excellent.” But his advice may encounter resistance within the independent sector, which has long made its relative class size advantage over the state sector (see box, ‘Rivalry between state and private’, above) a key selling point. And unions will always vigorously oppose any suggestion of cutting teachers.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, which represents both state and independent school staff, said that the idea was “absurdly short-sighted” and “like cutting off your nose to spite your face”.
“It’s true there is a limit to the benefit of smaller class sizes in terms of attainment, but parents, students and teachers like small class sizes,” she said.
Bernard Trafford, head of Newcastle’s fee-paying Royal Grammar School, said that independent private schools already tried to cap their fees, particularly in areas where competition was fierce. “I don’t know who goes along with this idea that private schools have been irresponsible with their money and have simply ramped up fees.”
The NUT teaching union also criticised Mr Lenon’s advice. “Offering a cut-price private education will no doubt impact on money available for teachers’ pay and facilities, none of which will be appealing to parents, and it seems an odd thing to be suggesting,” said deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney.
Rivalry between state and private: what the heads say
The view from the independent sector:
Bernard Trafford, who is headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School, says that he does not face stiff competition from state schools in his immediate area, but that rivalry is fierce elsewhere.
“In Yorkshire there is very, very real competition, certainly,” he says. “Selective mainstream schools are enormous competition for many private schools. They were when I was a head in Birmingham.
“I know of many heads who, privately at least, will admit that they are the second choice when it comes to schools in their area. So the parents will reluctantly pay fees if they didn’t get their child into the state grammar. I can say that, as I don’t have a grammar within 100 miles of my school.
“But sometimes we have to know our place. We do a great job for what we offer, which is sometimes for people who didn’t get into the free school of their choice. Sometimes we have to swallow our pride.”
The view from the state sector:
Charlotte Marten, headteacher at the all-girls grammar Rugby High School, says that money is “very tight” in the state sector, particularly in comparison to what their private sector counterparts tend to receive.
“We get just over £3,900 per student, which is not a lot compared to what [private schools] are getting,” she says.
“There are definitely no fancy building projects taking place, but we do invest our money in quality teaching.
“What we can rely on is our track record. We may not have the facilities that private schools have, but our students are very successful.
“If a private school is considering cutting its fees, it will have to have a great track record.”
And Ms Marten adds: “Most parents tell us that they would prefer to get their daughters into our school, and if they are unsuccessful, they will then try the independent schools in the area.”
Class size ‘has little impact’
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that class size has no effect on attainment unless classes are cut to below 18 or 20.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), prioritising teacher salaries has more impact than class sizes.
Finland, which is among the top performers in the Pisa tests, promotes smaller class sizes of around 20. But the most successful countries have far larger classes. The average class size in South Korea is 34; in China, class sizes can hit 50.
Similarly, the Education Endowment Foundation suggests that reducing class sizes is one of the least cost-efficient methods of improving results.
The charity points to research that says it is very hard to achieve improvements if class sizes are cut to 20. The biggest effects are seen when reduced to 18 or even 15, it says.