Nearly fifty independent schools closed in the last academic year. Many others are struggling. It is not a good time to be a teacher in the independent sector.

For a short period, I taught in a place on the verge of closure, an average sized privately-owned Prep school based in the East Midlands. I recall one day walking up the rather splendid staircase to the staff room. Around the landing were a dozen or so boys, looking a little sorry for themselves.

‘What have you lot been up to?’ I asked.

‘We lost a rugby match, we’ve got a week’s detention,’ came the rather forlorn reply. It was that kind of school.

Growing Financial Pressures

But nowadays it is not just the throwbacks that are struggling. It is nothing to do with pupil numbers – demand for independent places is high, especially in the secondary sector. It is not to do with poor inspection reports: having spent more than a decade as an inspector in the independent sector, I found that the peer led approach of the Independent Schools Inspectorate rarely holds weak schools to account.

The problem is all financial. Boris Johnson has just promised to meet the full cost of the increased pension contributions; of course, being a) a politician and b) Boris Johnson it is too early to take the statement at face value, but while it seems likely that the maintained sector will absorb the extra costs somehow, the same cannot be said for many independent schools.

Some teachers will have received a letter this summer, ostensibly from their schools but in fact originating from the IAPS, the ‘top’ Prep Schools’ organisation, stating that they cannot expect to have the full pension increase met by the school. ‘We will do our best,’ is the line, but given the choice between spending the money on marketing, the maintenance of expensive grounds and buildings or allocating it to their staff’s pensions, many of us can guess the direction in which Governing bodies will turn.

£30000 Starting Salary a Distant Dream

But pensions are just the beginning. Another Boris promise is a starting salary of £30000. If that materialises – and it is a big ‘if’ – it will be beyond many independent schools.

The major players – the Etons and St Paul’s, the traditional boarding Preps such as The Dragon and Summerfields, will cope. But smaller institutions, country Prep schools and those where the competition is greatest will struggle even more. For many, it will be the final straw.

Most independent schools are caught in a triple whammy of interlinked problems. IAPS recommends that schools spend no more than two thirds of their income on salaries; when these (or other) costs increase they face just three options. Increase fees, take more students or reduce costs elsewhere. None is truly viable. Increasing fees will turn parents away. Many already struggle to meet the costs of educating their children – for every millionaire who does not even look at the termly bill, there are dozens for whom funding the fees is a serious concern.

Fees rise and they consider the local state school, and suddenly realise that it is an appealing alternative. Let us be honest, spending £18000 a year out of taxed income does not get our kids better teaching; it does not buy better classroom behaviour; it does not procure a better education, simply a more privileged one. What it pays for are small classes, good facilities and a posh entrance hall.

Which in turn counts out the other two options facing struggling schools. Take on more pupils and class size increases – reduce spending on buildings and grounds, and one of the major attractions to parents of sending their offspring to an independent school is lost.

A Bad Time to Be Working in a Private School

So, what does all this mean to teachers working in most Independent schools today? Unfortunately, the picture is not a good one. In the school described out the outset of this piece, staff received a letter early in the summer holidays to tell them that the school was closing, and they were redundant. There was no money for any form of compensation, and for most it was too late to find another job for September.

Parents and students, too, were left in the lurch.

If a school is about to close, there will be no warning. The decision will be taken at Governors’, or owner’s, level. In the rare cases where an independent school includes a teacher representative on its Governing body, it is a safe bet that they will be excluded from sensitive discussions. The last thing the school can risk is news of an imminent closure leaking out; nothing is more likely to turn risk into certainty.

There are clues, though. Are budgets being cut? Have salary rises been capped, or removed altogether, over more than a single year? Are senior, experienced teachers being replaced with ever younger ones? Is the grass getting cut less often? Is staff turnover increasing, with many suddenly making the decision to leave or retire?

Has, as happened in one (and probably many more) south east Prep School last year, a new Head been appointed who has carried out a hatchet job on staff? We can’t name the school, but so desperate were the new Head and Governors not to lose students, that many complaints resulted not in an investigation, with the teacher’s view valued, but suspension ‘pending investigation.’ Few teachers wish to remain in a school where that occurs. Having a seven-year-old tell you, ‘I’ll get you sacked, just like I did with Mrs Blah Blah,’ is not something anyone wishes to hear, especially when it is true. In this school, more than ten per cent of the staff left under unusual circumstances in under a year.

A Chance to Widen Horizons

But there is some positive news. Many teachers who work in independent schools have never experienced life on the other side. Just misinformed rumour. Some went through the private education themselves, and naturally headed into it on qualification (most independent schools like to favour their own).

So, this year might be time to consider a change. The maintained sector is not perfect. Far from it. But teachers will find, usually, less low-level disruption to learning. They will find a more supportive management structure, and a more professional set up than is sadly true in many, especially Prep, schools.

Salary will probably be slightly better and working conditions more consistent. There will be fewer evening commitments. Although terms will be slightly longer, the working day will be shorter than it is for many who work in independent schools desperately trying to offer more and more to attract and retain parents.

Perhaps the independent sector’s crisis might open new opportunities for its put-upon teachers.

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