Each year, our consultants work with schools’ senior leaders and boards across a range of strategic projects. Increasingly, the focus of these projects has been supporting schools to develop a strategic response to the much talked about ‘headwinds’ facing the sector – the challenges of VAT on fees, changes to charitable status, increasing costs of teachers’ pensions, the cost-of-living crisis, the impact on parents’ ability to pay fees, and changing population demographics.  

Now, more than ever, schools need to focus on building financial resilience through clarifying their offer and their position in the market and maximising the impact of their activities, whilst also minimising costs and optimising revenue generation.  

To achieve this, school leaders need to ask a number of challenging questions, including: 

  • How well do you understand what parents, pupils, staff and alumni value about your school?   
  • How effective are you in communicating your values to your key audiences?   
  • How well does your staffing model match current and potential future needs?   
  • Are you maximising income from your facilities?  
  • Where are you on your fundraising journey?   

By answering these questions schools can start to build a solid foundation of data and evidence on which to develop their strategic plans.  

Understanding your stakeholders 

Meeting the expectations of parents and other stakeholders is crucial to the ongoing success of a school. However, too few schools take the time to understand what their stakeholders truly value. Through understanding stakeholders’ critical priorities, schools can identify where to place their limited resources and, conversely, identify any areas where activity is not valued and could be downscaled without impacting stakeholder satisfaction.   

Understanding what current parents, pupils and staff value about your school is invaluable and inviting feedback should be viewed as an integral part of a wider programme of parent, pupil and staff engagement. Seeking the honest views of parents, pupils and staff, in an inclusive, open and collaborative manner drives improvement and recognises successes but also promotes trust, builds a sense of community and pride and improves understanding of the school’s aims.   

Research with prospective parents who ultimately choose the school and those who reject it for another should be a focus. Understanding both the tangible aspects parents seek when choosing a school and using intelligent questions to explore what parents are trying to achieve for their child through their choice, can provide schools with a wealth of information.   

Communicating your values   

Marketing is one of the most common strands of activity schools seek to optimise. The impact of marketing activities can be difficult to measure but ensuring you are achieving an effective return on financial and people investment is crucial.  

Exploratory research among both joining and non-joining parents to uncover a deeper understanding of decision-making motivations can also provide a real understanding of how prospective parents accessed and used information during the decision process, how well schools communicated their ethos and aims and how well these values compared to other schools under consideration. 

Ensuring your marketing and admissions strategies are aligned and optimally configured for current and future recruitment cycles is key to ensuring an effective return on marketing investment. Yet it is not uncommon to find siloed working among marketing and admissions teams as they become increasingly impeded by the day-to-day demands placed upon them.  

Marketing plans should be reviewed to ensure they are supporting the school’s admissions needs – be that generating more enquiries, and/or, supporting the conversion of enquiries to enrolments. Those representing the school at events, be they marketing, admissions, or other staff members, should be well briefed on the school’s values and key messages and are able to effectively translate them to potential parents.  

Review your staffing model 

Understandably, schools are looking closely at their staffing to understand where there might be potential efficiencies and/or alternative models. Ensuring that your teaching and support staff cost base is in line with pupil numbers and current and projected income is a complex and multi-layered task. This can often mean planning for growth in some areas, while seeking to reduce cost in others.   

Schools should gather sufficient data to provide a detailed picture of resourcing and then map this against their strategic priorities. Where a school has an operational plan in support of its overall strategy, this will provide greater clarity and make the task easier.  

Of course, unlocking efficiencies is as much about process and skills as it is about actual staffing numbers. Important in any review of resources is to conduct a review of progress once any changes to process and/or structure have been implemented and have had chance to bed in. In our experience, missing out this step can mean missing further opportunities for efficiencies. Also, the act of seeking feedback can play a valuable part in managing the school through any required change process. 

Maximising commercial income 

The optimisation of facilities to support commercial activities, such as rental to third parties, the delivery of summer camps or the provision of extra-curricular courses for the local community, can generate additional income streams for schools.  Success in this area will depend on the range and quality of facilities and services available, location and strong promotion.    

In our experience, however, this alternative income stream should not be viewed as a silver bullet. For some schools a dedicated ‘Enterprise’ resource might be required to market, manage, and deliver the various offerings and there will also be costs to the school relating to staffing, maintenance, promotion, and administration. Those schools with a successful commercial income stream have developed a clear strategy which drives the promotion of facilities and services to a clearly defined set of audiences and is underpinned with an accurate picture of the costs associated with marketing and delivery.  

Alternatively, some schools choose to enter into one or more partnerships where the partner delivers, for example, an annual summer school. The partner carries any commercial risk, and the school simply receives a fixed fee, and/or a percentage of profit, in return for the use of its facilities. This can present a lower risk approach to generating commercial income, but with clearly potentially lower returns.  Schools adopting this approach also need to have a tight control over the way in which the partner communicates the service to ensure no relinquishment of control over the school’s overall brand or reputation. 

Review your fundraising journey   

There is a growing recognition within schools that development can play a critical role in helping Heads, Governors, and senior leadership to realise their strategic vision, while facing the challenges of changing times. An engaged and galvanised community of alumni, past parents, local businesses, and friends can bring levels of advocacy and support that the parent body alone cannot. When engaged and informed, members of the wider school community can become walking talking adverts, careers advisors and donors – adding to the school’s brand, increasing the value of the offering, and providing financial support now and in the future.   

We firmly believe that all schools can fundraise and, if not doing so already, you may wish to consider how you might generate much needed additional income in this way. Whether you have a development team or not, you will need three things:  

  1. A compelling, inspiring, and watertight case for support: This is the reason why potential donors should make your school a priority.  It does not need be complete – the best cases for support evolve over time and often benefit from input and insights from donors – but it must be authentic, strategic and provide a clear articulation of the impact donations could have. 
  1. A focus on major gifts fundraising: The cost-of-living crisis means that for some schools sensitivity may be required when asking their community for additional funds. Therefore, we recommend a focus (or increased focus) on major gifts fundraising; the quiet, well-researched, considered individual approaches to a small group of carefully curated individuals or organisations in a position to support with substantial donations. All schools can do this, whether they have a dedicated development team or not.  With a disciplined, focused approach major gifts can be secured.  For schools new to major gifts, a small amount of specialist support can enable you to understand and succeed in this area. 
  1. Research to provide deep knowledge of your potential supporters and how to engage them: Who are your potential donors?  What are their interests and motivations? What do they think of your school?  How connected are they to the school?   Might they be interested in supporting you?  

Surveying and/or interviewing your community will provide essential insights about both the collective community and individuals to inform decisions, help you to understand the potential for fundraising and generate opportunities to begin discussions about ways to support you.  It will eliminate the risk of assuming, guessing or only listening to the ‘loud minority’ and provide the evidence to ensure that all events, communications, and activities are focused and intentional.    

Through asking challenging questions, focused on these key areas of importance, schools can develop clear and robust strategic and operational plans to ensure their financial resilience through the challenging times ahead.  

Please contact us for an informal chat about any of these issues facing your school and we will be happy to help. We will also be running a webinar……