In this article, Martin Meenagh of Chelsea Independent College reviews the changes which independent colleges have experienced over the past decade and speculates on changes to come in the years ahead.

Ten years ago, there was a sense in which independent colleges functioned as ‘boutiques’, allowing students freedom of choice and resting on the delivery of modular a-levels, retakes, AS levels, and a total focus on university entrance, which was expanding rapidly. The international market was relatively new to most colleges, the number of UK sixteen year olds was growing, and general financial confidence made for a relatively easy life for many colleges. Within colleges, principals could function like pharaohs over hiring, firing, and spending decisions, and staff were almost wholly judged on exam results rather than their formal qualifications.  Visa procedures and admissions for overseas students were not as rigorous as they are now and the regulatory environment was only just enforcing the need for safeguarding and pastoral policies which were fully up to scratch: mindfulness and mental health were a glimmer in the eye of only a few heads.

Now, the commercial and regulatory backgrounds have changed dramatically. Overseas recruitment is much harder, with very rigorous UKVI inspection, and greater competition in mature international markets. English-system schools abroad offer alternatives to coming to the UK for pre-university study, the business of marketing abroad has become more professional and expensive, and a parental and student requirement for diversity have made life very difficult for colleges which have student bodies dominated by one or two overseas nationalities. Regulations, compliance and inspection absorb considerable administrative effort, and, now that many independent colleges are owned by groups, targets and financial disciplines are firmly enforced.

The mainstream independent schools, under similar pressures, have responded, often with a new emphasis on individual choice which was formerly a key selling point for independent sixth-form colleges. Universities have engaged ferociously, offering foundation courses as an alternative to the sixth-form route into higher education, to a point where some educators are considering that the effective merger of tertiary and secondary independent education is only a few years away. At the same time people are less optimistic financially, putting pressure on fees and costs, and A-level reforms have effectively eliminated AS-level incentives for domestic students to transfer into the sector, and retakes of exam modules are a thing of the past.

Alongside this there has been a vast though patchy improvement in a much more diverse state sector, which now encompasses specialised schools, academies, free schools, grammar schools, and multi-school trusts. Independent schools and colleges are really being given a run for their money in London and outside, and this has been generally to the good of society.

Some independent colleges have reacted to all this by doubling down on A-level performance, particularly since A levels have once again become a gold standard. Many, however, are pursuing a model in which foreign student programmes, high school terms, and academic summer courses, sit alongside foundation, BTEC, and A-level provision. Many principals have also emphasised personal development and mindfulness, conscious of how students and parents are now aware of clearing and the grade requirements of all but the top of the Russell Group.

The job of senior leadership has changed. Over the course of a decade, institutions formerly run by charismatic heads, who often held proprietorial stakes in their colleges, have developed a much greater reliance on professional administrators. The independent college sector, which in part used to constitute a fleet of exhilarating pirate ships, is now probably more associated with purchasing orders, leadership qualifications, policy suites, rigorous admissions procedures, and online interviewing. At the same time, many independent colleges are finding that their mainstay tutors, the passionate but essentially amateur graduates of old who knew their subject backwards and who taught across multiple schools to make a living, have been supplanted by full-time teacher trained staff.  Providing supplemental tutoring has been displaced and is increasingly separated in this new model, partly because online tutoring can now be a full-time occupation, but is very demanding.  I do also notice far fewer examiners on staff in colleges that I visit—possibly a consequence of the online moderation systems which exam boards have adopted, which  have professionalised and reduced the number of examiners compared to ten years ago.

These changes have not been without casualties. In the middle of the past decade, many colleges found themselves purchased by larger groups, as they were unable to survive individually. This trend now seems to be accelerating and has recently been accompanied by a spate of college ‘makeovers.’ Such changes will surely continue.

Looking ahead shows only the likelihood of more change and further challenges, to the independent sector in general, and to independent sixth-form colleges in particular. Some possibilities would be definitely damaging: were a future government to reintroduce grammar schools or to expand a free-school or academy system, they would accelerate the elimination of independent schooling.

Other factors such as the impact of Brexit are less easy to call. On the one hand a lower pound and am improved A-level system tend to attract more non-EEA students, rather than fewer. But initiatives like immigration changes that attract students to Canada rather than the UK by counting study as part of residence requirements, might equally become so entangled with tougher post-Brexit UK immigration rules and a damaged market for UK university places that students do not see why they need to come to England and Wales in the first place. The jury is out, but cautious and qualified optimism is probably the best kind.

Finally, the growth both of BTEC and other professional courses such as AAT, and the mooted development of T-levels, all suggest that successful schools in the future will specialise in three or four things rather than try to offer everything. A writer in 2025, looking back, may well note how limited the number of A levels and GCSEs offered by independent colleges were, rather than how diverse, though this can only really be made possible by group ownership. We may well see more Art colleges, more Technical institutes, and more sub-departments of local providers who are in effect polytechnics, particularly if university degrees made up of modules that can be transferred between institutions takes off.

These are the ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’, as Don Rumsfeld once parodied Immanuel Kant in mentioning. It is interesting that even the unknowns, beyond some vast and unpredictable change, can at least be outlined—a smaller international market in the middle east and China, the growth of russophone areas, a flight from southern Europe, and trouble for the IB after its decade-long expansion may well be on the cards. As Adam pointed out to Eve when they were driven out of the Garden of Eden, ‘We Live, My Dear, In a Time of Change.’

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