Michael Gove delivered a convincing and motivating keynote address at the Spectator’s event ‘The Schools Revolution’ in London yesterday in which he underlined his aims to allow parents to establish ‘free’ independent schools funded by the state.
However, the event gave little insight to the impact that such moves might have on the existing fee-charging independent education sector, so Senior Consultant Joe Faulkner looks to our own independent schools research to assess what this might be.
Michael Gove, the Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, began his talk at the Spectator’s one-day conference at the Westminster Park Plaza by outlining the sharp decline in the UK’s education system over the past decade. Citing research by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) he asserted that over ten years UK student attainment in literacy has dropped from 7th place to 17th (globally). Similarly, attainment in maths has dropped from 8th to 24th.
Despite this, the Shadow Education Secretary did point out that the UK’s fee-paying independent schools are the best in the world, offering universally recognised success and offering an opportunity to benchmark a level of excellence against which state education can be measured (“a very real public benefit”, he noted).
However, throughout the remainder of the event, little mention was made of the impact that establishing up to 4,000 free schools (independent of central control but with per-pupil funding delivered by the government) may have on the outstanding provision offered by the UK’s current independent schools.
This was one area explored in mtmconsulting’s Independent Education Sector Report 2010, published recently. The report, partially informed by a survey of 31 sector leaders, made a number of core observations:
Selective state schools have a negative impact on independent schools
55% of our survey respondents believe that over the next 20 years “a growing number of good state schools would draw pupils away from the independent sector”. This figure has risen from 30% in 2007.
Using the evidence of grammar schools as a proxy for good state schools, we explored their effects on the local authorities where they exist. We found that:
- “In local authorities with no selective state schools, independent schools account for almost one-tenth (9.7%) of pupils aged 11+” (excluding pupils in state sixth-form colleges)
- “In those authorities where there is at least some state school selection, independent schools account for 6.4% of pupils aged 11+.”
- “So, on average, state selective schools have reduced independent school rolls by about one-third (34%), compared to what they might otherwise have been. If we assume that selective schools are a reasonable proxy for what better state schools might ultimately achieve, then good state schools will have a significant negative impact on independent schools.”
Less selection is worse for independent schools
Following on from the above observation, we compared those local authorities in which there is a little selection (<10% of secondary pupils go to state selective schools) with those with more selection (>10%). We found that:
- Where more than 10% attend selective state secondary schools, independent schools account for 7% of pupils.
- Where less than a tenth attend selective state schools, the share of independent schools drops to 5.9%.
This anomaly may be explained by the idea that “when a less able child of wealthy parents fails to get into a state selective school, if the alternative is a secondary modern then they are probably more likely to go to an independent school.”
Free schools may attract pupils away from independent schools
We asked our survey respondents to judge whether the Conservatives’ plans for free schools would be implemented and attract pupils away from independent schools. 39% felt it unlikely while 36% thought it likely. We would side with those who think it likely, and in particular the smaller minority who believe there is significant potential for independent schools to lose out to free schools.
In quantifying this, our estimate is that “if the grammar schools are a guide, then there could be a reduction of about a third of pupil numbers over a period of 20-30 years”.
Of course, our own research for independent schools can never be taken as a firm prediction. There will always be opportunities for schools to overcome the threats of regulation, legislation, competition and demographic change. We believe that all independent schools should focus their school’s strategy on identifying a niche, differentiating their school from its competitors and consolidating its position.
Schools marketing, of course, plays a crucial role in this and school business leaders should work towards a marketing strategy which clearly outlines aims and objectives, routes to acheive these and the right messages to enhance perceptions.
To discuss how we can help your school to find or maintain a position of strength, or our marketing, strategy, communications and research services, please contact mtm.