ARE ACADEMIES A THREAT TO INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS?

New breed of Academies may give private schools a run for their money

Comment

The Academies programme is continuing apace. 547 secondary schools are now Academies that is 16.5 % of all secondary schools. By the end of this year the proportion of independent state secondaries is expected to be 1-in-3; and by the next election the majority of state-funded secondary schools will almost certainly be independent. Ministers privately define success as at least  half of all secondaries becoming academies by 2015. They believe that this is  achievable .

The Free schools programme ie essentially new schools with academy status- is also developing with 40 in the pipeline,  around half of which should open  this  September.

The financial advantages to schools afforded by academy status  are one of the main drivers for those seeking to convert to academy status. It  is clear that the programme has achieved its own momentum, in contrast to the Free schools programme that has encountered a few teething problems, although the large Academy chains, offering technical support and economies of scale may help quicken the pace of Free schools expansion , over the medium term. The independent sector is now looking over its shoulder. Some see the supply side reforms as  a threat to their future, particularly the smaller ones operating on tight margins and with no endowments.  Fees have  risen on average well above inflation year on year and with inflation  on the up parents  are beginning to  feel the financial chill. Top independents are charging close to  £30,000 a year. True, the sector was extraordinarily robust over the period of economic slump, the financial crisis, and credit crunch. But will it be so resilient this time around.? Already there is a trickle of schools looking to join the state sector having seen their rolls fall. MTM research points out that of those parents that could afford independent school fees for their children but don’t use the sector, 73% are satisfied with their local state school options. If that proportion rose, say, to just 75%, the independent sector would lose 26,000 buyers, or 7% of its total roll.  With inflation up, falling confidence in the job market , a low growth economy  and lower disposable incomes, the independent sector may feel squeezed by rapidly improving state schools.  This does seem to be a developing threat to the sector particularly as many of the new breed of  academies  will be relatively  high performing schools, that  are not towards the bottom of the league tables and are not in effect   failing schools that have re- launched (unlike most of the first tranche  of academies under the last government)

Independents will have a job on their hands to keep their fees down and will find themselves competing with better local state schools. Many will probably meet the challenge with equanimity, others won’t.

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