As I was driving down to the ISA conference, I heard something that most analysts said would never happen – the approval of a new grammar school (albeit an annex to an existing school). The arguments are familiar

– those opposed feel they stifle social mobility whilst their supporters say that they promote social mobility, allowing academically gifted children to reach their maximum potential.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of these arguments, grammar schools remain a threat to independent fee-charging schools as alluded to by Barnaby Lennon in his key note speech at the ISA conference. However, the notion that grammar schools have always been a threat and independent schools have continued to survive them is ignoring the changes that have taken place in the education sector. This re-emergence of grammar schools, coupled with ‘academisation’ and the entrenchment of the free school movement, amounts to a tide of non-fee-paying ‘independent’ schools, which will no doubt have some impact on traditional markets.
The big question is how independent fee-charging schools will fare in this new and dynamic policy environment. As a researcher in this field, I am reluctant to give a definitive answer (remember the pollsters before the general election?), but will argue that the outlook, despite the gravity of the threats alluded to, does not look gloomy. Some of the reasons for this optimism are:

The Veblen effect: despite the apparent high fees, independent schools will always be the only choice available for some families, despite the availability of alternative free options. This is will always be true of affluent families up and down the country. Furthermore, for most aspirational families, paying for independent education represents the highest form of conspicuous consumption.

The sustained economic recovery: the recent sustained economic recovery, with its accompanying low inflation and low interest rates, mean not only relative certainty for parents, but also for the first time in many years, real increases in real income. MTM research (both the ‘Missing Million’ and Fees Surveys) has shown that some parents have relied on loans to help them pay fees. With interest rates at historic lows and forecast to stay low until at least the end of next year, borrowing cheaply is currently an option open to many parents to fulfil their ambition of giving their children the best education possible.

• All-round education: the concerted effort to build the whole individual, academically, socially and culturally has always been the hallmark of British independent schools, a feat that most competitors struggle to challenge.

• Favoured second choice: observations in the past have shown that independent schools are a back-up option for many children who fail to make it through the selection process for grammar school entry – independent fee-charging schools remain the only alternative in areas with grammar schools for many determined to get the best education for their children.

If you are concerned about the potential threat from the non-fee-paying alternative in your area, then we at MTM can help you find ways of countering it: we have many years’ experience in helping clients in the independent sector get the best possible high-quality information for their marketing efforts. If you want to find out more about what we can do for you, contact James at 01502 722787, james@mtmconsulting.co.uk.