Independent thinking in a climate of change

New inspection frameworks, an uncertain political landscape and social mobility are just some of the issues the independent school sector is faced with at present. The independent schools council (ISC) represents over 1,200 private schools and is famed for its strong defence and support of the sector. Marie Cahalane speaks to Julie Robinson, general secretary of the ISC, about coping in this climate of change

These are uncertain times. The EU referendum and subsequent political upheavals have left their mark and it’s unclear to what extent this will affect the independent sector – socially, financially, politically. While our schools have always embraced change, it’s how we react now that will define us later. Considering both the internal and external challenges faced by the independent sector at present, I took the opportunity to speak with Julie Robinson, general secretary of the ISC.

What changes will affect independent schools in particular?

Just as in most sectors, there’s uncertainty about the potential effects of Brexit on the economy. This will affect fee-paying parents and, specifically for our sector, the free movement of people, which could potentially block teachers – especially modern foreign languages teachers – and visas for European students wanting to board in the UK.

Finances are in sharp focus across education with funding shortages in the state sector and also concerns that independent schools must keep an eye on affordability so that fee levels don’t rise unduly. Schools will have to contend with rises in pension costs in the near future and the business side of running schools must be attended to. This has led to some schools merging to achieve economies of scale and that has proven a very good solution for small schools.

Another ongoing challenge is public perception fuelled by a rather unsympathetic media that likes to characterise our schools as ‘snobby’ and elitist. In fact, ISC schools are diverse and non-selective. Current parents recognise the value of independent education but the stereotypes can be off-putting. Readers of the popular press might be surprised to learn that independent schools consider themselves aligned with ‘one nation’ thinking and promote social justice but, inside the sector, we know it’s a well-established fact; the challenge is getting that message across to people who have no experience in our sector.

How is the ISC approaching this and advising member schools?

ISC is in the process of forging relationships with new personnel in the Department for Education (DfE) and other government departments. Policy-makers have advised that we wait and see – and don’t take rash action based on speculation – and that’s what we’re advocating to schools.

There has been much sensible advice about financial planning and schools have enhanced fund-raising for bursaries (which now make up a third of ISC school places) over recent years. ISC continues to issue bulletins to schools which keep them up-to-date with new requirements and processes. Schools should remain true to their mission and aims and should continue to make the most of the freedoms that come with independence, setting out a curriculum that suits local needs.

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High fees are a hot topic at present. A 3.5% fee increase in an uncertain financial climate could deprive many students of an excellent education. Are fees becoming unaffordable?

Affordability is an issue of concern and, even though ISC schools have maintained a market share of seven per cent over several decades, schools in certain areas of the country are aware that they are nearing fee levels which are in the top band of market-tolerance. ISC encourages schools to analyse the elasticity of the local market and work with it, setting appropriate bursary support levels and providing flexible payment options wherever possible. Schools are mindful of costs; the average fee increase has been held at 3.5%, the lowest since 1974, and there is more assistance with fees than ever before.

What is the ISC’s stance in terms of new school regulations and inspection frameworks?

ISC supports and represents independent school associations with the DfE where we (alongside ISI) have received welcome reassurances that ‘light touch’-style inspection is acceptable and focused on the basic regulations. The ISI has taken positive steps in developing a more pragmatic and proportionate response to small procedural failings. There’s much support for compliance inspections and a good level of agreement between associations over proposals for a new educational quality inspection framework.  ISC has been involved in talks between ISI and associations with respect to the new inspection framework consultation and we await further announcements from the ISI in outlining the new model framework and pilots for schools.

The ISC census revealed some positive statistics; what does this say about the sector as a whole?

The sector is in very good heart, with more pupils and more schools than ever before – and ISC records date back to 1974! This is a testament to the high standards of our schools; despite recession and economic pressures, parents continue to find that our schools offer good value for money. However, there are significant regional variations; schools in the South East, and in and around London, are in a very different situation from rural schools. Some schools are in particularly challenged catchment areas where families are making huge sacrifices in order to afford fees and those schools are particularly sympathetic and flexible to parental needs. As a result, we have a diverse collection of schools ranging from the lavish to the strictly economic.

Research by Durham CEM last year confirmed that there’s an academic advantage for pupils who attend independent schools. The study tracked pupils from the age of four, discovering that they are two years ahead academically by the time they reach 16, with better examination prospects. Children in our schools are typically confident, and have high expectations, because independent schools – like all great schools – inculcate a positive, can-do culture where pupils thrive. Parents are willing to pay for their children to be happy, motivated and cared for in a nurturing environment which will provide the very best start in life.

This article first appeared in Independent Leader

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