Headteacher Carole Hawkins lays to rest the common perception that independent schools enjoy a privileged and problem-free position in today’s education market

There is a perception in some areas of the press – and indeed the wider public – that independent schools are wealthy institutions, with acres of land and massive assets which radiate elitism of a type it is popular to mock. As such, they should be viewed with suspicion and possibly envy.

However, there are many schools in the independent sector that in no way match this image and which fight daily for their survival in an increasingly difficult market. These are the small independent schools which provide that personal and individual touch that many parents desire – particularly, but not exclusively, at primary level.

So what are the challenges for the small independent school? I will give you just a taster of some of those we face on a day-to-day basis and how, in many cases, we can turn potential problems into positive attributes.

The key for any small school is keeping up the numbers. If you have a one-form intake of perhaps 12-15 children, a few individuals moving out of the area or no longer able to pay the fees due to redundancy can be serious. So whereas some schools may be in the happy position of having recruitment drives at certain times of the year, possibly with a marketing department to facilitate these, a small independent must be proactive every day. The head, the school secretary and every member of the school community have to lend a hand.

From my point of view, I have the joy of inviting people into school all year round. When we have families join us, it is a matter of celebration and congratulation for all the team.

The staff are some of the best ambassadors for our schools, but we face problems attracting and retaining quality staff. Many of us are too small to have an obvious career structure, we may not be able to pay higher salaries and allowances and a few still do not pay pensions.

The challenge is to go as far as one can to reward good teaching and to try to give job satisfaction in other ways. Many teachers will be happy to trade some potential salary for smaller classes and a more interesting curriculum. The problem can be in keeping the options viable and in being prepared to accept that some staff will move on after a few years to enhance their careers. Clearly we have to attract enough good staff to ensure continuity of care and good practice.

Many of us, particularly in small day schools, work in areas where we have plenty of rivals, some much bigger than ourselves, some very similar in size. This may seem strange at first glance, but is not really surprising as areas where there are many professional families are clearly the right locations to set up our type of school. The situation if often further complicated by the fact that in those same areas, state schools tend to have good reputations too.

What small schools have to do is celebrate and shout from the rooftops about what they do well – not in vague and fuzzy terms but using every opportunity to get across our own image and selling points. Everyone will have a very similar mission statement, every school will claim to be caring, to develop the child’s full potential and so on. What a small school has to do is to offer something its rivals do not – be it fantastic sports facilities, a beautiful location or whatever – and make sure that the unique selling point is so well known that when the school is mentioned in the locality, everyone says, ‘Oh that’s the school with the wonderful…’

Limited opportunities for making money

Most small independent schools are fee income schools with little opportunity to make extra money by other means. Boarding schools may be able to rent out their premises for conferences in the holidays, but most day schools, apart from possibly letting the school hall or sports hall, have very little opportunity for extra income.

Increasingly, there is pressure on small schools to provide wrap-around care, holiday care and so on, which again diminish the opportunity for outside income, although these activities do generate income themselves. We have to provide what the market wants. A small school that is a one-stop shop for 10- to 12-hour care 51 weeks a year, is a very busy school, but surely also a winner.

The upkeep of the school is another headache. If you have a small site and are working all year round, when do you manage to do the maintenance such as painting and decorating? When do you do the deep cleaning and when do you do the major work such as putting on a new roof or re-tarmacking the drive? On a small site, you have to make the decision to shut down entirely for a week or so to complete the necessary work. Of course, it pays for itself, even if you do lose a small amount of holiday revenue, as parents expect a small independent school to be in pristine condition.

This brings me to the whole thorny subject of parental expectation and I write this with the caveat that most parents I have met in several schools over the years are delightful people who trust the school to get on with the job of educating their children. They recognise that education is our area of expertise and they know that we will do our utmost to ensure their children have the very best possible education.

However, we live in an era of instant gratification and a culture where many believe you can buy anything. I think that all schools, therefore, are seeing an increase in the number of parents, very often first time buyers into independent education, who think that they can buy the results they think they want for their child. They will not listen to reason from teaching staff who may try to tell them that Johnny cannot yet cope with the spellings the blue table are doing as he has not yet got his high frequency words secure. This is often, of course, a euphemism, as Johnny in fact can’t spell any of them! Such parents can be vociferous at collection time and spread disaffection, which whilst serious for any school, can have devastating consequences for a small independent one.

Sometimes such parents not only have unrealistic views of their child, but their views on methodology can be flawed too. All parents will tell us that they want their child to be happy at school. There is of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, what some parents mean is that they do not want their children to be challenged in any way. They expect each lesson to be fun and exciting; they do not want their children to have to carry out any repetitive tasks or exercises and they only want them to read bright books with lots of pictures and big print which are ‘relevant’.

Additionally, they do not want them to be subjected to any discipline. Yet, bizarrely, they expect their child to be a high achiever and tell us that is what they are paying for. It is therefore very important, not just in a small independent school but in the sector as a whole, to make parents appreciate that their children can be happy even if they are required to work on a difficult task. Furthermore, they need to understand that children will learn to appreciate the satisfaction of a job well done, a goal achieved – factors which themselves are a source of happiness.

For some parents, the idea that their children can be allowed to fail sometimes is also alien. But how else can we prepare them for real life? As I have said, these matters are not unique to small schools, but the need to manage such situations is of greater importance.

Small schools also find themselves under pressure from parents and others who quote league tables. Many small schools will have a mixed ability intake and so cannot expect 100% top grades. Similarly, one or two children, who incidentally may have done well for their abilities but who don’t attain their 5 A*-C grades, can pull down the results of a small cohort significantly. Most small schools, however, will rightly put the interests of the child first and will allow all to enter exams, while some larger schools who chase their places in league tables with ruthlessness that would put Alan Sugar’s apprentices to shame, do not.

The latest equipment can also pose a problem for small schools. Parents, not unreasonably, expect the school to be well equipped, but buying major capital items out of small fee income can be problematic. Most small schools will phase purchases and will not jump on any new bandwagon immediately, preferring to wait and see how trends develop.

This, however, can sometimes put us at a disadvantage if our schools are not bristling with interactive whiteboards and conferencing facilities. My answer to that is that we will provide such equipment over a period of time and that such things are merely tools, not substitutes for good teaching.

And finally, of course, we are all faced with endless legislation, regulations and downright interference from a succession of secretaries of state who are allegedly ‘for education’ but seem to be out to make a name for themselves in the shortest space of time. Again, the challenges are there for all schools but perhaps more so for small schools, which have neither the staffing nor the resources to deal with the minefield of legislation with which we are bombarded. The small school’s resource to deal with all this is the head. Many of us find ourselves dealing with complex legislation – from employment law and pensions to play equipment and catering hygiene. These are matters that we would have only touched on 20 years ago.

So why, you are probably asking, do any of us bother to carry on running small schools and do they have any future?

I would say that small schools do have a future. Parents still like a homely atmosphere, good staff/pupil ratios and the feeling that their child is known to staff and valued. They like the fact that small schools often have a core of loyal and dedicated staff who will go the extra mile. They like the teaching and the individualism and they like our unique selling points.

We, for all the problems, enjoy our pupils tremendously, feel them to be part of our extended family and are passionate in our endeavours to provide the type of education we believe in for our children. To achieve that goal, we can combat any challenges that are put in our way.