Thursday, January 15, 2009

British Independent schools weathering the recession

It is going to hurt. We all know it is going to hurt. But how much is it going to hurt? As the rest of us brace ourselves for a bruising recession, independent schools, outwardly anyway, are calmness personified. "Right now, this does not really feel like a middle-class recession," says David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents more than 1,300 fee-paying schools. "It is business as usual for most of our members. We are certainly not looking over the edge of some kind of precipice."

In theory, independent schools are no more immune than anyone else from economic vicissitudes, but the experience of the last recession, in the early Nineties, suggests that any impact is likely to be significantly delayed. "At times of belt-tightening," explains Lyscom, "parents give top priority to continuity of education for their children. They don't do anything drastic unless they absolutely have to." Statistics bear him out. The last recession started in the third quarter of 1990, with negative growth lasting until the start of 1992. At first, according to an ISC census, pupil numbers held firm. It was not until the end of the recession, in 1992, that they began to decline. There were further small falls in 1993 and 1994. If that pattern were to be repeated, one would not expect pupil numbers to fall appreciably until 2010-11. But savvy schools and parents will certainly not be burying their heads in the sand until then. Budgets are being reviewed and, in some cases, trimmed.

"Schools are used to living in the real world," says Lyscom. "They know how to adapt to hard economic times. The canniest schools will also realise that as one door closes another opens." The plummeting pound, he believes, is a case in point. For parents in Geneva or Hong Kong, the cost of sending a child to an English boarding school has suddenly fallen, not risen. There is a new market out there, waiting to be tapped. "The recession will have all sorts of knock-on effects, not all of them negative," agrees Paul Smith, headmaster of Hereford Cathedral School. "The fees at this school are 10,000 pounds a year, which compares favourably with other independent schools in the area. It is not difficult to foresee parents with a child at one of those more expensive schools electing to send a younger sibling here."

Not all schools, inevitably, are going to survive the recession unscathed. In November, two private preparatory schools, Bramcote Lorne in Nottinghamshire and Brigg in Lincolnshire, announced they would be closing at the end of the term and merging with nearby schools. There will no doubt be other closures and mergers. But then there always are, in good times and bad. "It is the small schools that are most vulnerable," says Jonathan Cook, general secretary of the Independent Schools' Bursars Association. "If they lose, say, 10 pupils from a school roll of 150, that is a potentially crippling blow. At larger schools, economies of scale are possible. You can raise class sizes from 14 to 16 or trim the number of A-level subjects from 42 to 40 without doing lasting damage."

Some capital building programmes may have to be put on hold, according to Cook, although even that is not a foregone conclusion. "Borrowing is cheap at the moment. You can get a builder and strike a good deal. Financially, independent schools are pretty straightforward operations compared with other businesses. They establish how many pupils they are likely to have in the next school year, then plan accordingly."

Pupil numbers for 2009-10 cannot be anticipated at this stage, but there is already plenty of anecdotal evidence, says Cook, of parents struggling to pay fees on time. "They are asking for fees to be deferred or paid in stages and, where possible, schools will do what they can to help."

If education professionals are bullish, many parents are clearly twitchy. There has, for example, been a boom in applications for grammar schools (up 20 per cent in Kent alone). In October, at Wallington County Grammar School, Surrey, there was such a scrum of applicants, more than 10 per place, that police had to be called to keep order during the entrance exam. But it is not panic stations yet. Prudent housekeeping by schools and careful planning by parents should keep the damage to manageable proportions.

Common sense suggests that, despite the optimistic noises coming from the independent education sector, there will be schools that cut their fees in a bid to retain the loyalty of parents. But they are likely to be in a small minority.


A private education and proud of it

Comment from Australia below. Note that private education is a mass phenomenon in Australia. The overall numbers attending private schools are not too different from elsewhere (approx. 7% in Britain, 11% in the USA and 13% in Australia) but that changes radically if we look at secondary school enrolments only. About 40% of Australian teenagers go to private schools. In other words, many Australians are happy with government schooling in the early years but see it as inadequate in the later years.

Language note for American readers: "Whingeing" (pronounced "winjing") is a derogatory Australian/British word for the sort of persistent whining a little kid does when it is tired etc. It is derogatory when applied to adult complainers and critics

LET'S get a few things straight from the outset: I went to a private school; my parents aren't rich; they worked hard to pay for a total of 39 years of private education for their three daughters. Should they or I be ashamed of this? No. I'm tired of the whingeing about private schools, their pupils and parents. The beauty of earning income is that you can spend it on whatever you choose. My parents chose to spend a significant portion of their earnings educating their kids. We worked hard at school and did well, the only way we knew how to repay them.

At 26, am I now an idle eastern suburbs "lady who lunches"? No. The moment my HSC exams finished, I was on my own. I got a part-time job, paid my way through uni and got a "real job" at the end. I now work alongside alumni of both the public and private systems in investment banking.

There is a small number of private school students who do rort the system; who use daddy's funding of a new wing for the school as leverage to get their own way. They are the minority who give us all a bad name. There are also kids in the public system whose behaviour is equally unscrupulous.

Just because I was educated at a private school it doesn't mean I'm lazy, up myself and undeserving of what life presents me. I drive an entry-model Japanese car, rent a small apartment and, like most, struggle to pay my bills and wish I had more money to pursue the things I desire.

Why isn't there similar outrage against people who buy a European car instead of a domestic make because they can afford it? Could it be because it's their money to spend as they wish?

It is time people stopped complaining about the "evils and excesses" of the private school system and started looking at the failures and problems in the public system. For me the most telling thing I've heard was a case of a public school teacher who would not send his three sons to a public school. His wages, by no means excessive, were poured into educating his boys at a private school. If all the energy spent complaining about private schools and their pupils was channelled into improving the dire state of public schooling, we might have a public school system worth defending.


No comments: