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A new association for private school proprietors

There is a popular misconception that schools run as businesses, be they proprietorially or corporately governed, must necessarily compromise educational outcomes in pursuit of profit. On the face of it, concerns voiced recently by Ofsted on the quality of teaching in non-association schools appear to validate that view. Recent research into the impact of commercial ownership and management frameworks on educational outcomes for the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) makes clear that this belief is a myth. Looking at Ofsted 162A inspection outcomes on key teaching and learning related criteria for all such schools inspected on this schedule between 2007 and 10, the study found that 85% of them consistently achieved good to outstanding on these criteria. To be sure that means that 15% of those schools inspected during this inspection cycle (40 or so) could do better, but this bares no comparison to the 30% of non-association charitable trust schools found wanting in the same period (over 300 schools). There are of course many successful charitable schools, but among them are too many well-intentioned, but pedagogically misguided (often local community) enterprises, which going forward ought to be the proper focus of the attentions of parents and regulators alike. It is evident that the private schools sector, which mainly consists of proprietor-run schools, consistently attracts educationally committed individuals, who are not just serious about what they do, but prepared to invest heavily, both reputationally and financially, in securing high quality outcomes for their pupils. What challenges many of these schools, particularly those that are proprietor-owned and managed, is not the intelligence and ambition of their educational vision, but managing their businesses in a financially sustainable fashion within the framework of that over-arching commitment. Research building on that undertaken by the ASI, by The Centre for Market Reform of Education, presented in a keynote address by James Croft at its proprietorial schools conference last April (2012) found that in comparison to ISC schools, the fees at private schools (of which only a third are currently in association) are quite clearly weighted towards the more affordable end of the spectrum, attracting a high proportion of first-time buyers. Figure 1: Private school fees for Junior level (age 5-11) Taking last year’s (2011) ISC census data for average Junior day fees as a benchmark, and factoring in an increase of 5%, fully 82% of the 430 private schools educating children at the Junior school level do so on fees lower than this. In Figure 2 (below), the projected ISC figure for Senior, again taking last year’s figure as a starting point, was just short of £12,500, and 69% of private schools came in under that benchmark. Figure 2: Private school fees for Senior level (to age 16) (Fee information was obtained from school websites for 71% of the 479 schools analysed; a further 10% came from ISC online profiles; 18% were extrapolated from Ofsted reports on the basis of a 5% annual fee increase.) Having collated details of fee concessions from school websites, ISC online profiles, and the isbi schools site, CMRE researchers found that in addition to obviously commercial discounting (for siblings, new entrants, etc.), which was widespread (with 62% of institutions offering such concessions), a good number go above and beyond their remit as businesses to provide discretionary means-related bursaries and academic and other scholarships. Private schools work hard to make the service they provide as accessible to as broad a profile of pupil as they can, within the constraints of the market. But given the structuring influence of state provision – most keenly felt over the past decade in the rising cost of teacher salaries and regulatory compliance – ensuring sustainability in the trade-off between attracting and retaining pupils through lower fees and concessions and planning for cyclical downturns – is a real challenge. It to address this challenge, and in the process to further public understanding of proprietorial models of private schooling, that the School Proprietors’ Association (SPA) is this month being launched. The School Proprietors’ Association, The SPA developed from a consultation hosted by CMRE to help proprietors explore the case for a new independent school association, itself following a successful conference initiative in this space by the Centre in April 2012 – an event designed to speak specifically to the interests and concerns of school owners and investors, business managers and heads working in this sector. Launched this month, the now independent SPA seeks to provide opportunities for networking and fellowship among private school owners and senior leadership, in order to facilitate the sharing of best practice and access to relevant professional expertise and advice. The SPA’s inaugural Private Schools’ Conference, which continues to be run on the SPA’s behalf by the Centre, is being held on Saturday 11th May 2013 at Great Houghton School, Northampton. It offers a unique opportunity for private school owners and managers to meet, share their experiences, and learn from the perspectives of leading practitioners and consultants. Media coverage Independent Schools magazine - 'SPA Conference looms' April issue (page 20) - link here Prep School Magazine (SATIPS) - 'A new association for private school proprietors' Summer term 2013 - Issue 77 - link here

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About the author
James Croft is Director of the Centre for Market Reform of Education and the co-author of the CMRE discussion paper 'When Qualifications Fail: Reforming 14-19 assessment' (2012) and previously of 'Profit-making free schools' (2011).