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News archive - January/February 2018

Independent schools’ estates facing rising financial pressures, says Bidwells

Property consultancy Bidwells says rising running costs, lack of financial reserves to carry out property improvements and the political threat of losing charitable status and the subsequent business rates and VAT liabilities are key challenges facing independent schools in 2018.

The consultancy says many schools do not have financial reserves for property improvements and are ‘fire fighting’ in terms of keeping old or listed buildings fit for purpose. There are usually other issues such as site constraints, access and transport links. Maintenance is also a challenge with many establishments needing to ‘fly the plane whilst building it’. Jobs often take longer than the scheduled period during the holidays and run into term-time, causing timetable disruption.

Bidwells notes that there are increasing and rapidly changing demands on a school’s senior team, saying “bursars and governors need to be commercially astute to ensure their establishment survives and thrives with the emerging challenges that lie ahead.” Bursars, it suggests, “need to access professional advice on property maintenance and improvements to ensure that initiatives meet with success. Having close relationships with the local planning department is key, as are project management skills to see new developments delivered on-time and on-budget.”

Bidwells observes that some schools are trying to raise income by letting out facilities during the holidays for conferences and events. “However, this is currently not proving a successful financial strategy for many schools as the opportunities are limited and the profit margins small. Such activities are a further burden on - often stretched - facilities staff and adds to the maintenance costs of the property.

“Independent schools need to be even more creative in seeking other income-generating activities which can help to offset rising costs. A way forward could be looking at innovative ways to create revenue in the same way as some Oxbridge colleges which invest in property outside the campus and use the rental income to support academic activities. Other options including fundraising from alumni which has varying degrees of success in the UK and for the top schools, overseas franchising.”