The recession may be over officially, but for the majority of independent schools the market remains extremely fragile. Badly-timed investment in plant, sluggishness in responding to parental needs and failure to accommodate long-term trends can all spell disaster. Once on a downward spiral, a school can become unviable alarmingly quickly. With margins so tight and parents nervous of prolonged financial commitment, it's very easy to get it wrong and much more difficult to get it right.
The rate of contraction is slowing down from the worst two recession- hit years of 1992 to 1994 when the Independent Schools Information Service, which represents 80 per cent of the sector, recorded a loss of more than 11,000 pupils from its schools. New census figures are out next week but it is known that since January 1995 15 Isis schools have closed and 18 have merged, indicating that a significant amount of "restructuring" is still taking place.
Independent, inner-city selective day schools have thrived throughout but rural and boarding schools in particular are struggling to adapt to a changing market. Independent schools are having to accept that parents will mix and match the state and private sectors depending on standards offered by local state schools and what they can afford. Up to 26 per cent of parents buying into the independent sector also have children in state school.
Parents are fully aware through the publication of exam league tables that some state schools can produce better results, and with many also reluctant to send their children vast distances to board, independent schools are now having to work hard on a variety of enticements. Many senior schools are dropping their age of entry from 13 to 11 to pick up pupils from the state sector and many prep schools are dropping their age of entry from seven to three to pick up families seeking nursery placements. The real growth in numbers has come from this younger end.
Flexible boarding, before and after-school care for day pupils and improved extra-curricular provision have become key elements in marketing strategies. Small class sizes remain a major incentive, a facility no independent school can afford to abandon.
Full boarding may stay out of favour, but schools are adapting to a changing need. Weekly boarding has become more common in recent years, but occasional boarding is also on the menu in some schools. For families where both parents work, or children are cared for by a single parent, the knowledge that boarding is available a la carte is proving popular.
Extra-curricular clubs such as those for sports, orienteering, horse riding, drama, music and creative arts as well as supervised preps have always been part of boarding school life, but these are now also offered to day pupils in an increasing number of schools.
Wellingborough School in Northamptonshire faces immediate competition from five grant-maintained schools and state selective grammars in nearby Kettering and Northampton. Wellingborough's head, Ralph Ullmann, believes that a boarding school culture offered to day pupils is the way forward. More than 60 regular activities are run after school during the week and day pupils can stay for supper if parents require it. There is a free- standing programme at weekends which day pupils are also entitled to.
The academic timetable, which once included Saturday morning, is now accommodated from Monday to Friday and the weekend is dedicated to working on extended projects in practical subjects such as art and design technology as well as to leisure sports such as navigation and sailing. A record of extra-curricular achievement is provided.
Parents can book boarding nights when they wish. "After-school care is not the deciding factor when parents choose a school," Mr Ullmann says, "but it is part of it. We have to change with economic and social patterns.
"There is a considerable gap in overall achievement between Wellingborough and neighbouring schools, but it would only have to close by a very small amount to be a very real threat. We have to work at everything - academic and pastoral care, individual attention, discipline, to tip the balance in our favour."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: "I think the future for second tier independent schools will be bumpy because whoever wins the next general election, both parties are hell-bent on raising standards in the state sector. Parents will not keep putting their hands in their pockets to pay school fees when they can put their children into a state school which achieves results."
Nick Lewis, the bursar of King's School, Canterbury and chairman of the Independent Schools Bursars' Association, says independent school were having to become much more professional in both their marketing and training of staff to improve efficiency and keep their fees down. "My evidence suggests that the recession is not over. The threat of competition from the maintained sector is very healthy," he says.
Garibaldi School, an 11-18 comprehensive in Mansfield, takes children in for 8am breakfast and runs homework and sports clubs and catching- up classes before and after school. Pupil numbers at the school have almost doubled in five years. Bob Salisbury, Garibaldi's headteacher, says: "Twice I have spoken to conferences of independent school heads and when they hear of the initiatives that some state schools are taking, they are frightened to death. The challenge is coming from all directions."
Pass: it's bed, breakfast and lessons ...
Mark Jones was obviously on tenterhooks. As the head of a newly merged prep school, he was in the unenviable position of having to inform teachers later in the day whether they were to have jobs or not.
That nasty business aside, he was upbeat about the future of Bramcote Lorne, a school of 250 children housed in a range of buildings from Queen Anne boarding rooms to a purpose-built 1990s pre-prep. He believed it was better placed to fulfil a niche in the local market.
Bramcote and Lorne House prep schools, near Retford, in Nottinghamshire, were both rescued by parent buy-outs in the 1980s, but redundancies in the armed forces (a 35 per cent drop in boarding numbers is attributed to the loss of service children) and the loss of the mining industry threatened their futures once again. Mergers are rife in the region. Three schools are joining forces in Lincoln and two in Stamford where good state schools form keen competition.
Since January, when Bramcote Lorne came into being, Mark Jones has been working hard to make provision as flexible as possible.
A pre-prep department takes children from two-and-a-half and a creche called Stepping Stones takes babies from six weeks. A before-school and after-school service means that children can be dropped off from 8am and picked up at 6pm or later, when they have had supper. Full boarding is available, but parents can opt for weekly boarding, occasional boarding on a regular basis or temporary boarding if they need it for work or social reasons. Weekend activities are available to day pupils, but these are also optional, in an attempt to fit in with family requirements.
Margaret Holmes lives 18 miles away at Southwell. Her son, Jack, and daughter, Amy, are day pupils but she and her husband, John, who is a sports agent, are often required to be away on business. On those nights the children become boarders. She says: "I was against boarding, but there is so much going on at the school, they are so happy and this arrangement is very convenient."
Janice Hucknall has two boys, Liam, aged eight, and James, aged six, at Bramcote Lorne. She too uses boarding when she and her husband are away late in the evening. She says: "The children love it here. There are so many activities and it is as flexible as you would want it to be.
"I suppose you could say that we are a glorified dinner, bed and breakfast service," says Mark Jones.
Fail: a school that didn't make it
When Bury Lawn School opened in 1987 as Milton Keynes's only independent school, the future seemed glorious.
It started at Easter with 220 pupils and by September was full, with 500 and a waiting list. "We purposefully did not want a school of more than 500," says Chris Symington, the school's bursar and joint managing director of Bury Lawn Holdings, "so we approached the Milton Keynes Development Corporation about setting up another school."
The development corporation was not keen to have competition in the town so helped Bury Lawn to find a site for a second Bury Lawn School in Flitwick, a fast-growing London commuter town in Bedfordshire, some 30 minutes away by road, where a gleaming new building in a generous acreage was duly built.
Bury Lawn in Milton Keynes, a non-competitive, co-educational day school, attracted middle-market, first-time buyers, a formula it believed was so successful that it planned to build others. It was dubbed the M&S of the independent market.
By the time the Flitwick site opened in 1990, however, the bubble had burst. Although 250 sets of parents had registered their children, in the end only 90 pupils arrived for school on the first day. The school never grew beyond 180 pupils and it went into receivership last year with some children being transported back to Bury Lawn in Milton Keynes, a school that now caters for 420 children aged from 18 months to 18 years.
Mr Symington says: "A lot of parents were on fairly low salaries but with enormous commissions. They came to us because they worked hellishly long hours and needed a school to look after their children from eight in the morning until six at night."
In the end many parents were caught in negative equity, and remortgaging to pay fees was not an option. Before the amalgamation with the Flitwick school, numbers at Bury Lawn had fallen to 350 in four years.
With hindsight, says Mr Symington, the school's management should have been satisfied with staying at Milton Keynes.
The Flitwick site has now been sold as a private nursing home. Mr Symington believes there is still a great demand for the school's brand of education - small, personal, getting the best out of each child regardless of ability - providing the parents can find the money to pay for it.
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