TG Escapes Blog

The Key Challenges Facing Independent Schools

by Karl Stokes | May 6, 2024 | Blog, Education

We’re excited to be appearing at the ISBA conference taking place at the ICC Wales from Monday 20th to Wednesday 22nd. Our team have worked with independent schools across the UK on stunning bespoke buildings, featuring a turnkey design and build process, biophilic design principles, and net zero in operation as standard. If you’re attending the conference, make sure to speak to our team to learn more about our unique, award-winning service, or contact us through our website if you have any questions about the work we undertake with independent schools.

Independent schools across the UK are encountering an increasingly challenging landscape, with economic uncertainties, regulatory changes, and environmental responsibilities imposing new pressures. At the same time, the competition for attracting students and staff is intensifying. From smaller specialist schools to larger established private institutions, there is a need to innovate and upgrade educational offerings while maintaining heritage and financial stability. Our team works closely with independent schools across the UK, giving us a clear vantage on the current state of the sector, and some of the key challenges to consider within it.

The state of the independent school sector

In the UK, independent schools are still a significant part of the educational landscape, offering diverse and specialised education options. Across 2600 schools ranging in size and type, around 600,000 children are educated, with overall pupil numbers increasing (though boarding rates are decreasing). These schools contribute substantially to the economy, generating billions in economic activity and tax revenues. 

Independent schools also invest heavily in bursaries and scholarships, demonstrating a commitment to social mobility. However, there has been a marked rise in the costs of private education within the UK (with a 77% increase since 2000). These fees grant children access to far smaller class sizes than state schools alongside higher grades, meaning many parents still consider the investment worthwhile.

The challenges faced by independent schools in the UK

There are a variety of ongoing and potential challenges to schools in the independent sector. Some of these, such as the need to meet net-zero goals, are shared across the education sector, while others, such as the potential financial changes posed by the upcoming election, are unique to independent schools. 

Potential political shifts

The Houses of Parliament in London

The history of election polling in the UK and further afield highlights the risks of treating any outcome as a certainty. And yet, with all current polling for the upcoming election predicting a large majority for labour and catastrophe for the conservative party, a new political reality seems to be dawning. This probable outcome will have a significant impact on independent schools in the UK. Labour's proposal to revoke VAT exemptions for private schools has sparked concern within the sector (despite a U-turn on plans to abolish their charitable status). This move, aimed at redistributing £1.5 billion to fund state education, could increase tuition fees by up to 20% depending on how costs are accounted for, making private education less accessible for many families. In anticipation, some parents have started paying fees years in advance, attempting to circumvent the impending tax increase. 

This policy has ignited a debate on the ethics of taxing education and its impact on the affordability and accessibility of independent schools. These changes could both make it more difficult for independent schools to remain profitable and decrease the number of parents able to afford their fees.

Other financial challenges

Alongside the potential price rises from VAT, there are several other financial challenges facing independent schools, with rising costs impacting nearly every aspect of their operation. The aftermath of the pandemic and increased demand across various sectors have led to significant hikes in hardware costs and energy bills, straining school budgets. Another key financial challenge comes from large increases in pension contributions to teachers starting this April, with some speculating that this could lead to independent schools exiting the Teacher Pension Scheme.

Amidst these rising operational costs, independent schools also grapple with the need to remain relevant and compliant with regulatory standards, all while striving to offer quality education amidst growing scrutiny over private education's role in societal inequality. Independent schools typically raise fees every year in line with inflation, but with the effects of the cost of living crisis across the UK this can also lead to prices becoming unaffordable to parents who have previously been comfortable with them, as shown by the 83% of independent school leaders polled who said their school was spending more time chasing up unpaid fees.

Finding and keeping the right staff

A teacher and students looking at a row of computers

In the wake of the pandemic, independent schools are facing a significant challenge in recruiting and retaining quality staff, a problem that is affecting the wider educational sector (two-thirds of teachers considered leaving the profession over the last two years). The stress and demands of maintaining high educational standards during such unprecedented times have left many educators reevaluating their career choices. 47% of teachers in the independent sector have expressed intentions to leave due to the immense pressure and its toll on their mental health. This has hurt recruitment, with a survey finding that 66% of school leaders struggled to fill teaching positions, with 52% saying the same for administrative roles.

Additionally, the shift towards digital and blended learning has necessitated new skills, further straining teachers who are already under considerable stress. The situation is worsened for newly qualified teachers, who face their own unique set of challenges, including a disrupted training period during the pandemic. As independent schools navigate these complex issues, the focus on strategies to support and retain their teaching staff has never been more critical.

Sustainability and net-zero

The drive towards net-zero and sustainability presents a formidable challenge for independent schools, which must navigate a landscape lacking tailored standards and guidance for achieving these goals. A 2023 whitepaper produced by the Independent Schools Council showcased both the potential and the challenges of meeting new standards. The sector’s diversity means that solutions fitting large institutions often do not apply to the majority, which are small to medium-sized and face challenges akin to SMEs in other sectors. 

Additionally, boarding schools encounter unique hurdles such as the limited windows they have to upgrade facilities, further complicating their journey towards sustainable practices. The ISC report points to a pressing need for sector-specific support, including policy updates and sustainable procurement guidelines, to aid all independent schools in the transition to meet evolving environmental regulations.

How our team works with independent schools

A modular building at Ratcliffe School built by TG Escapes

TG Escapes has worked alongside a number of independent schools on new buildings, offering a comprehensive turnkey solution that focuses on sustainability and student experience. Every project starts with a complimentary design service, where our team work with you on a bespoke plan built around the specific needs of your school, whether that’s SEND classrooms, specialist facilities, or entire school buildings. These structures are aesthetically pleasing and durable, designed for over 50 years of use, while also meeting sustainability and net-zero goals. By using an innovative modular method, we can ensure true customisation in terms of design, while reducing both timescales and costs compared to traditional brick buildings.

We handle every aspect of the building process from design to installation, ensuring that schools receive a building that is ready for immediate use, incorporating the latest in ventilation, heating, and renewable energy technologies to achieve net-zero in operation as standard. Our team have long been proponents of biophilic design, incorporating outside learning areas, natural light, and clean air. Biophilia has a pronounced and proven impact on the mental health of students and has even been shown to increase grades.

With decades of experience and hundreds of educational projects completed, TG Escapes has received excellent client feedback and several industry awards, reflecting our commitment to delivering quality, sustainable educational spaces. Explore the many projects we’ve completed through our website, such as our award-winning classroom block for Ratcliffe College, an independent school in Leicester. If you’d like to find out more about our educational buildings or discuss our free design service, speak to a member of our team today.

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About the author

Karl Stokes
Karl is Managing Director at TG Escapes. He has worked in the construction industry for over 20 years working closely with architects, clients, compliance and build teams.

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