One of the most gratifying elements of working on the Independent Schools Portal is the way that it facilitates, broadens and deepens the relationships between our member schools. It is based on the recognition that by positively working together, by embracing the new millennial culture of sharing, that standards can be driven up still further across the sector to ensure that the children we serve receive the very best education that it is possible to deliver.
Despite the headwinds that many of our schools are sailing against, I am filled with optimism that traditional (and often fierce!) rivalries are being set aside, or at least left on the sports field, in the spirit of collegiality. It is collegiality based on self-interest: it is better if we all excel, if together we can continue to attract ever greater numbers into the sector, so that everyone is able to grow stronger.
I’ve taught extensively in both the maintained and independent systems, and one of the greatest strengths of independent education - though we often take it for granted - is the sheer diversity of independent schools. Unbound by the constraints of the National Curriculum and Ofsted that creates a one-size-fits-all straight jacket that is continually lamented by our maintained system colleagues, our schools are free to set their own priorities - whether they be academic, pastoral, sporting, creative, traditional or technological. This differentiation means that learning can be truly personalised - and it is possible to find the perfect school for your child. Carving out niches is how our schools have been successful in the past - no two independent schools are the same. It is how we compete for pupils. But it has been wonderful to witness our schools seeking to grow the market as a whole by sharing best practice, teaching resources and expertise for the benefit of all, recognising that if we all excel, we all succeed.
I recently met up with one of my mentors from my days at Teesside High Prep, the wonderful Mike Abraham, now at RSAcademics. Having established Yarm Prep School in the early 1990s and growing it to almost 350 children, Mike knows a thing or two about succeeding in Independent School education. We discussed the benefits of collaboration and the importance of always remaining outward looking as a school to keep teaching and learning fresh. But Mike also made the point that schools could go much further, and it would benefit our children and parents enormously if they did. We are taking the first strides towards collaborative purchasing on the Portal to leverage the collective scale of our schools to save money, but there is so much more that we could do if we were to grow our schools strategically and to - deep breath - share facilities.
The ‘arms race’ in facilities - whilst it has brought about an undoubtedly welcome improvement in the educational environment that our children experience, has also contributed significantly to the increases in fees that threaten to price many of our parents out of independent education (ATL, 2012). This threatens the essential diversity that is our lifeblood by restricting the size of the market, but it also forces schools to take enormous financial risks simply to hold onto market share. Not only this, but there is also often unnecessary duplication where new assets are under-utilised.
If schools were to plan and build strategically as local groups, based upon a model of sharing, but compete with each other on our traditional diversity of ethos, then we would be much more efficient as a sector, we’d collectively have better facilities that were properly ‘sweated’ - fully utilised - and we would be able to moderate future fee rises. All of this would benefit schools, the parents - and most importantly, greater numbers of children would benefit by being drawn into the sector.
If all of our schools were run as for profit businesses, I doubt that this vision could ever take root. But most of the surplus cash in our sector is reinvested into the educational provision of the pupils, so I firmly believe that a longer-term strategic collaborative partnerships are possible as our schools begin to work more closely together. The most difficult part of a journey of a thousand miles are the first few steps, but these are steps that are being taken by Portal member schools. And it gives me an enormous sense of optimism for the future, despite the current challenges that we face.