The latest data from the Department for Education shows that the proportion of England’s children attending independent schools continues to fall. With greater investment making many state schools an increasingly attractive option for families who could in fact afford to pay school fees, how can the independent education sector remain resilient? MTM’s Managing Director James Leggett offers some insight.

The results of the DfE’s annual census 2021 does not make happy reading for anyone involved in England’s independent education sector.

Completed by every English state and independent school on the basis of their school rolls on the third Thursday of January every year, the census provides a revealing snapshot of the size and shape of education across the nation.

The big headline for the academic year 2020/21 is that 569,366 children across England were attending fee-paying establishments, representing 6.4% of the school-age population. This shows a significant reduction  – 1.3%, which equates to 7,504 pupils – on 2019/20’s figures and is a very far cry from the rule of thumb in the past that suggested around one in 10 English children were  being educated privately.

Demography

We’re not able to conclude whether or not this downturn is UK-wide as no similar census was carried out in Wales last year and Scottish data is only available by specific request. What we do know is that a steady fall in the birth rate across the entire British Isles means that the number of school-age children – and therefore the market for independent schools across the UK – is contracting .

Added to this, MTM’s market research indicates that the unrelenting hike in school fees over recent years – far exceeding average salary increases – is likely to have had an impact; parents employed in many of the professions that were traditional users of independent education are finding school fees much  less affordable.

Differentiation

No wonder then that families of a profile that would traditionally have put them squarely in the independent school market are investigating the fee-free, state school alternatives. And what they often find there are shiny new sports centres, concert halls and drama theatres. Acres of playing fields and outdoor learning environments. Spacious and fully-equipped classrooms. In many cases, very pleasant purpose-built schools.

Knowing where your school is winning and losing ground in the market informs decision-making on how to rise to the challenge.

New state schools are springing up where residential development is burgeoning, making them ultra-convenient for busy families.

Many state school classes are now smaller than in years gone by, thanks to the fall in the birth-rate.

Most importantly, successful state schools have been able to raise the aspirations of their pupils, leading to improved exam performance and in turn more places at university and on apprenticeships, and therefore better access to top careers.

So, the traditional points of differentiation between state and independent education are suddenly a lot less glaring.

Compete

Rising to the challenge of the state schools relies on independent schools knowing where they are winning and losing ground in the market.

Surveying target market families to find out what they know about schools and what they expect yields valuable intelligence. An analysis (MTM 3-60 or informal) of roll trends, family profiles, drive-times, exam performance and  strengths is essential, as is the same treatment for your own school for comparison.

Messaging

Competitor research also gives valuable insight into how the school’s strengths would be best communicated. Profiling target market families reveals the channels and language most likely to engage them. Make sure that your school is approachable and welcoming to parents unfamiliar with independent education.

Value for money

Demonstrating the benefits of the education on offer is vital. For aspirational families, a return on investment of school fees could come in the form of academic results, university offers or networking opportunities; for others, a supportive, nurturing environment, or the availability of a wide range of lessons, activities and experiences. High-quality wraparound daily care and holiday daycare or clubs can also be deal-breakers. In a competitive market, all of these advantages need to be spelled out.

Conversion rates

It’s just as important to look inward as well as outward – interrogating your own school’s admissions data can highlight where the recruitment process could be working harder.

Resilience

The key to being resilient in a tough market is to understand the competition and take unflinching action to give target market families what they are searching for in an education for their children. Necessarily, independent schools cannot operate totally fee-free. But by ensuring that funding is focused on aspects of the school that will encourage recruitment, making sure that messaging appeals to target market families in content and style, demonstrating the value of the education on offer and measuring the admissions performance in relation to achievable targets are all essential if independent schools are to stand up to the state schools and slow the steady erosion of the market for independent education.

MTM can provide your school with market intelligence on state and independent competition – just  chat to the friendly team.