21 March 2006

Meeting the public ...

Last night I took part in a public meeting - I sit on the board of Trustees of an educational charity. Independent education is suffering budgetary squeezes across the sector and our school is no different. The declining numbers of Independent schools make grim reading. The meeting was initially planned to last 1 hour - it eventually went on for 3. I didn't have time to eat before I went to the meeting, so I eventually threw some food down a little after 11pm last night.

Being a trustee is an unpaid job. The Trust Deed is written so that Trustees cannot benefit financially from doing the job. That is so that a Trustee cannot put themselves or their firms forward as the prime contractor for any work that needs to be done without proper safeguards.

The school has a lovely atmosphere with excellent academic results but costs continue to rise and fee increases are inevitable unless a benefactor appears from somewhere. Parents feel concerned that the Trustees won't give them guarantees about continuity of education or the stability of future of fee increases, but that is simply not possible. A school is essentially a small business, which is the reason for the post. It employs a group of people to deliver a service. It has to market itself in the local community and continuously challenge whether or not its services meet the needs of its market.

The school is doing some things right. 2 years ago, numbers on the roll were low and during the last 18 months there has been a concerted effort to market the school and raise its local profile. That has made a difference - more prospective pupils have visited the school on Open Days and more of them have signed up to join the school, and the win/loss ratio comes in for the same assessment as the win/loss ratio in any other sales focused business. The result is that numbers in the school have improved dramatically and we have also set up a new baby unit to try and offer a service to working mothers so that they can have child care in the school from 3 months onwards. These changes can be seen as alienating by existing parents who are concerned that the focus of the Trustees is on making the school attractive to new parents (the new market) while ignoring them and their children. That isn't the case, but it is a very natural fear.

What makes this so difficult is that there is no room for controlled experiments, we are dealing with children's educations. I hope that we can all work together to make good decisions.


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