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Article published 2nd June 2008

Girls’ schools, prep schools and even the occasional boys’ or co-ed school have been closing at the rate of half-a-dozen annually for several years now.

Because recession tends to affect independent schools a couple of years late, we expect such closures to continue. Is there anything parents can do to avoid being caught in a crash?

In troubled times girls’ schools are particularly vulnerable. Far more recent – and poorer – foundations, they do not have the resources to spend on flash facilities or to fund everyone’s choice of subjects. Many girls’ schools have suffered a crisis of confidence over this. In a school with the will to survive, the social and educational benefits of a girls’ only sixth form in a school in which you are known should be confidently and unapologetically asserted — by the girls themselves and certainly by the head.

Prep schools face a host of challenges: senior schools looking to the state sector to satisfy the Charity Commission, senior schools transferring to the state sector, grammar schools prevented from expanding, an adverse political climate, reduced funding for diplomatic and military families, improving standards in international schools.

Many independent senior schools have dug themselves a grave with a decade of spiralling fee increases. Even when times are good most parents make considerable sacrifices to pay for their children’s education, so recession plus a modest hike in fees can be the last straw. 

If the death of a school is sad for us, it can be a disaster for parents. Schools never give much notice of closure – how can they? The moment their state of mind or finance is known, there is a rush for the door. Schools, like marriages, may look harmonious and healthy to the outside world but may harbour all kinds of corrosive and ultimately fatal problems under the smiling surface. 

There are nevertheless some runes you can read that may indicate the chances of your chosen school going under. Look out for:

  • Falling rolls. For English senior schools, look at the performance table data on our website: you can track how each part of the school has been doing over the last five years. For schools in The Guide, we will note where we are aware of consistently falling numbers. Does the school unaccountably have spaces in every year group, and a willingness to take on difficult cases?
  • Poor finances. Schools that are comfortably off generally feel loved and nurtured. A school should look its smartest in September; if no maintenance work or painting has been done over the summer break that could be a warning sign. Look too for copious bursaries and other signs that the school has funds in hand. Likewise, a school unconfident of its future is unlikely to mount appeals for ambitious projects — a new sports hall or music school. Has your school lost the will to live?
  • Not sacking troublemakers is a sign, as is cutting corners in the curriculum. Is the head often away drumming up business? Cheap labour: gap-year students can be wonderful, but they are inexperienced and they don’t last.
  • Loss of self-belief. Many schools have a very particular clientele and image. When a school starts to have doubts, to look a little furtive like someone at a cocktail party who is not sure they want to talk to you, they lose their traditional market and often fail to gain a new one. It takes a strong school to proclaim a steady course.
  • In boarding schools, an absence or excess of overseas children. Having no children from overseas at all, particularly in a senior school, can be the sign of a very duff marketing department. More than 20 per cent can make the school an uncomfortable place for the native, unless the school has a segregated facility, as some do.
  • A weak head and an unhappy staff increasingly willing to let their feelings show to parents. 

The above apply to all varieties of school. Girls’ schools are by no means alone in being in an uncomfortable market position. Boarding is in long-term decline, state schools can provide sharp competition, whatever makes a particular school distinctive may no longer appeal to enough parents. 

So who is for the long drop? There are no sure-fire ways to see it coming. The battle between schools is fought out over years and fortunes can ebb and flow. A sudden legacy, a new head, selling out to Cognita, a change in fashions or even the relocation of some large employer — all can pull a failing school back into contention. Some independent schools have already joined the state system as academies or free schools and more are applying to do so — an upheaval, yes, but at least the school’s still operating. It’s not over till the chartered accountant sings.

Is there anything concerned parents can do? If you are really partisan, a talented leader and have a lot of time (and money) on your hands, get involved — school governing bodies can be pretty moribund places, particularly if the bad news has been washing in for a few years. We have seen energetic new brooms make an enormous difference. If you have serious doubts about the stability of your child’s school it’s as well to prepare an escape route. Check out the alternatives and know who you want to phone should the bad news ever arrive.

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