Approaching the mid-point of the year, and the end of a decade of change, it is appropriate to reflect on the changes that Independent Schools have gone through, and on what the near future may have in store.  It is not pompous to talk of a new educational ecosystem, nor to note how Independent schools are at the forefront of attempts to adapt or die in the new environment.

Ten years ago, there was a sense in which schools and colleges functioned as ‘boutiques’, allowing students absolute 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, and both a demographic and credit-based uplift, combined with a relatively lax regulatory environment, made for a relatively easy life for many college officials. The big chain schools and multiple trusts were a new thing, change in the state sector was slow in coming, and A-level quality itself was being challenged by the IB and pre-U system. It is fair to say that the sector was still absorbing the lessons of the need for safeguarding and pastoral policies which were fully up to scratch, and mindfulness was a glimmer in the eye of only a few heads. Within colleges, principals could function like pharaohs over hiring, firing, and spending decisions, and staff were almost wholly judged on grade results regardless of qualifications in many schools.  Immigration and admissions were not as rigorous as they are now.

Now, the entire educational sector has been reformed. National policies which attenuated markets, very rigorous UKVI inspection, competition in mature international markets both from in-country transplants of schools to those markets, and professionalised marketing departments elsewhere, and a parental and student requirement for diversity have made life very difficult for colleges(and universities) which fished in only a few pools. Universities, too, have engaged ferociously in the foundation game, 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, credit is clearly running low, putting pressure on fees and costs, and A-level reforms have effectively eliminated AS-level incentives to transfer into the sector, or retakes of modules, for domestic students.

Some colleges have reacted to 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 heads 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.

Alongside this, there has been a vast but 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.

From a management perspective, it is also telling how attenuated the job of senior leadership has become. Over the course of a decade, institutions which had been associated with charismatic heads, who often held proprietorial stakes in their schools, have developed a much greater reliance on professional administration. The independent 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 than the public schools or the state. In tandem, many independent schools are finding that their staff are both educationally qualified and full time, as opposed to the passionate but essentially amateur graduates of old who knew their subject backwards and who taught across multiple schools to make a living. It is the case that outside tutoring, which often went alongside teaching, 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 too—possibly a consequence of the online moderation systems which exam boards have adopted, that have professionalised and minimised the number of examiners compared to ten years ago.

This change has not been without casualties. In the middle of the past decade, many colleges and schools 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 must surely continue. Were a future government to seriously propose reintroducing grammar schools or to expand a free-school or academy system, they would accelerate the elimination of independent schooling.

It is probably foolish to discount this possibility, any more than to discount Brexit simply because a lower pound and am improved A-level system tend to attract more non-EEA students, rather than fewer. Brexit, and initiatives like Canadian immigration changes that attract students by counting study as part of residence requirements, might equally become so entangled with immigration rules and the attenuation of the university market 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 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 future colleges are, 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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