It looks as if we are at a crossroads for private education in the UK. While the latest figures from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) show there are now more children in private education than at any time since records began in 1994, the same reports also show that there has been the lowest increase in fees since 1994 too. It is clear there is a strong demand for private education, but have the cost risen too high? It looks like this tension between demand and affordability may mean major changes are coming to the sector.
Earlier this year Stowe School, one of the UK’s most prestigious independent schools, with an impressive list of alumni that include Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Sir Richard Branson, announced they were going to slash their fees by more than £7,000 a year for non-boarders. The reason the school gave for this is that it wanted more local parents to see it as an option for them. The fees had risen to over £25,000 a year per child, an enormous amount to find, particularly when you consider the average wage in the UK is only around £26,000 a year. Stowe had realised there was a disconnect between itself and the local community and wanted to try and address this. School is about far more than a good academic education, it should be about building friendships and learning social skills. This becomes very hard when you have no school friends that live within easy reach.
Stowe School, with its heritage and famous former pupils still has plenty of demand for its places from across the UK and the world. The demographics may not be quite right at the moment, but they know it still has a strong pull with parents. Other smaller, less known institutions aren’t quite as lucky. There have been a number of cases of small private schools being forced to close due to falling pupil numbers. Only last week, Streatham Schools in Crosby, north Liverpool was the latest of these casualties. It had failed to attract enough students to make it viable, even though it had a capacity of just 70 covering ages four to 16. Headlines about poor Ofsted ratings for a number of private schools earlier this year may have also put doubt in parents’ minds about the quality of education their children may receive at smaller institutions.
Today’s parents expect a lot for their money, they want to see results and reassurance they’re getting what they pay for. With larger, wealthier private schools, with amazing grounds and facilities and a long list of famous alumni, this is immediately obvious. They have a social status that parents like to talk about. Smaller institutions, while often a little less expensive, don’t have this luxury, so have to work much harder to find their pupils. It is tough out there at the bottom and it is likely that more at this end of the scale will be forced to close. Marketing will become increasingly important for larger institutions, keeping their name in the public domain through initiatives or the exploits of former pupils will be a keen focus.
One solution to the demand for the benefits of an independent education – smaller class sizes, freedom to move away from the national curriculum and the opportunity to specialise in niche areas – without the price tag, is a new venture that will be opening in Durham this September. This is the brainchild of James Tooley, a professor of education policy at Newcastle University. He wants to open up the route of private education up to the masses, many of whom feel that it is simply out of their reach. At just £52 a week the mixed sex school will be an option for parents who don’t feel they are getting what they want from the local state schools. They are focused on a good education, rather than added luxuries like cordon bleu food, so will aim to provide the same high quality of education you might get in a leading private school, but without the frills. It will be very interesting to see if this starts a trend as ambitious parents see a cost-effective alternative to state schooling.
This is a very exciting time to be in this sector and it feels like the moment is ripe for more of this type of innovation. At a time when we know many jobs will change dramatically or disappear in the next 15 to 20 years, an education that prepares pupils for these developments is hugely in demand. It will be very interesting to see which independent institutions prove to deliver this most effectively. The schools that will survive will be the ones which adapt best to the needs of a modern education and persuade enough parents that they are worth paying for.