Eye of the storm
As a newly installed head, Duncan Murphy realised he had to enact a rapid strategic change in the school’s management. He reveals here how he revitalised Kingswood House School
On 5 September 2017, a matter of hours before sweeping through Florida and destroying seven million homes, Hurricane Irma became the most powerful wind ever recorded, with blasts in the Atlantic Basin recorded at 185mph. Meanwhile, in the relative calm of my new office at Kingswood House, Epsom, I was confronting a bleak reality. The lovely prep school where I had begun my second headship just four days beforehand needed to weather its own storm if it was going to survive the decade.
At face value, however, numbers on roll were healthy. The site had a cap of 210 and I had inherited a student body not too shy of 200. Equally, the staffing model was reasonable, although, like many schools that had long-standing heads, such as my predecessor, too many teachers were stuck at the top of the pay scale. Yet the cash flow for the year was promising and the school was on track to make a fair surplus. Things seemed reassuring until I did some quick arithmetic and worked out that a three-year forecast revealed a worrying loss. I looked into the granular detail again and emerged with a white face and a furrowed brow.
The first, overriding problem was the ownership of the site. Without conducting due diligence prior to my appointment, I had blithely assumed that (like most independent schools) we owned the freehold. I was wrong. The school leased the site on a 15-year contract from a trio of brothers whosemother, a carer, had inherited it from a wealthy spinster who had (allegedly) changed the will, which had originally been in the school’s favour, just prior to her last breath. The sons had no attachment to the school so regarded it as an underperforming asset. Every five years, a contractual rent review was conducted, the next being due in 12 months’ time. Our professional advisors told our board to prepare for a 40% hike. This is because there are very few schools in a similar predicament. If just one such school agrees to a bad deal, it becomes the precedent for the rest – and this is exactly what came to pass.
Secondly, and more significantly, the lease itself was due to expire in March 2023. While the school had a statutory right to renew, the landlords could potentially evict us either if they were able to demonstrate that ours was not a viable business or if they successfully applied for planning permission. A quick search on Google revealed the likely direction of travel – their family business specialised in building vast retirement villages. Our three-acre site was no doubt a prime location for development.
Furthermore, there was an immediate problem to contend with, namely, a lack of numbers at both ends of the school’s existing 13-plus model. Half a kilometre from our back gate was an outstanding local primary school that amply served the needs of its middle- class families without costing them a penny. It had more than doubled its intake in the previous five years. Our nursery had already closed the year before as a direct consequence of the ‘state ‘til eight’ mentality so there was no defined point of intake at the bottom of the school. At the top end of the age range, there was also a major squeeze. Historically, we had furnished 80% of our leavers at 13-plus to two local senior schools, Epsom College and St John’s, Leatherhead. However, both had since simultaneously opened their own lower schools, starting at Year 7, in 2015. The net result was that the majority of our families were now choosing the security of an offer during Year 6 to these schools, or others, for entry into Year 7 since they were intimidated by the prospect of a ‘conditional offer’, dependent on Common Entrance results. As all prep school bursars will testify, Years 7 and 8 are the most costly to run because of the need for subject specialists. Essentially, our 13-plus model was now just a vanity project; it was running at a significant loss due to the dwindling numbers remaining for the last two years of its conventional prep offering, most of whom were children who had not been academically or emotionally equipped to contend with the rigours of the pre-test process. Yet, from this last observation came the first glimmer of hope. The second was our proximity to the mainline train station in Epsom which offered regular services to London.
A quick SWOT analysis showed a small number of further key points in our favour from which a foothold might be gained to build forward momentum.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Primarily, the school had uncovered a niche market by taking on, in recent years, and probably out of necessity rather than design, a higher-than-average percentage of SEND pupils. In turn, this had perpetuated the evolution of a specialist study centre in the heart of our site which boasted a wealth of expertise and knowledge in this growing area. Due to the competitive nature of the Surrey circuit, many schools at that time did not want to associate themselves with SEND children in case it damaged their ‘elite’ status. This factor only reinforced the notion that we had to be prepared to occupy territory that none of our more illustrious counterparts would countenance. It was also an ethically correct thing to do on a human level. All children have needs of one kind or another – some are easily identifiable and others are not. Schools exist for their pupils, not the other way around. Helping those who do not always find life easy, either in or out of class, should be a moral imperative – and in this facet the school excelled.
Additionally, despite the contraction of numbers at either end of the school, there was still a healthy ‘bulge’ in the middle to work with, as evidenced by the high birth-rate in 2009-10. This statistic, in combination with the SEND profile of approximately 30% of the students therein, offered us an opportunity to extend upwards to GCSE by retaining those who would otherwise be hard to place into aggressively selective senior schools anyway. Certainly, it would be an expensive gamble and a high-risk strategy, but the alternative was unthinkable. A move down in age range to an 11-plus junior model would have saved quick money on staffing costs but also have placed us in jeopardy by being in direct competition with the aforementioned primary school on our doorstep – fee or free? It didn’t take long to rule that option out.
CHANGE WELCOME HERE
The school had originally been founded as a prep school for boys. The status quo had not changed since its inception. Consequently, we were only able to offer our increasingly unique provision to 50% of the market. While the business case was immediately obvious, I can genuinely say that a desire to bring girls into Kingswood House was motivated not just by a wish to increase revenue but because I recognised an inclusive ethos and philosophy in which many girls could, and should, have the opportunity to thrive as well as the boys in our care. In my first inset day with the teaching and support staff, I asked them to brainstorm words which they associated with key strengths of the school. The outcome of that exercise enabled us to frame a new vision statement as a collective, with additional buy-in from parents, governors and even the children themselves. We recognised ourselves as a mainstream school, albeit a little removed from the hurly-burly of a ‘normal’ setting, with a friendly and supportive culture; one where individuals of a diverse range of ability, background or faith could feel welcome and grow in self-esteem.
We coined the iconic template of the Kingswood House Way together with its iterative, values-based model of education to sit alongside the traditional academic curriculum. The precepts of Respect, Integrity and Endeavour were considered by all stakeholders to be the distillation of the elements that we, as a community, believed were important in the propagation of citizenship, society and sustainability. The Kingswood House Way created a beacon of excellence as well as a code of conduct for our school and ultimately evolved into a currency which we used to trade our brand of education. Adopted from the corporate world, the visibility of the construct provided an instantly-recognisable symbol of who we were, what we stood for and how we treated each other. Tellingly, its methodology became embedded very quickly throughout the whole school and many other institutions have since adopted a similar approach.
TO THE PRESENT
Fast-forward six years to the present day and the school has increased its numbers on roll by more than 30% up to 260, successfully launched senior provision up to GCSE (now with good sets of benchmarked results behind us to evidence our value-added), and has fully embraced co- education. Thanks to our unconventional mainstream status, augmented by outstanding SEND provision, we have been visited by both the Independent Schools’ Council and the Good Schools Guide. Since September 2017, we have undergone no fewer than five inspections – one regulatory compliance, three material changes (relating to 16-plus, increasing our cap for numbers on site and co-education respectively) and a full educational quality with focused compliance just a matter of weeks ago. Along the way, at a formative time, we contended with the universal threats of the pandemic (including the production of teacher assessed grades for just our second Year 11 cohort and actively marketing co-education for a start in September 2021, while all schools were shut!), a contracting birth-rate and the volatile post-Brexit economy. A case in point was our early consultation for withdrawal from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, which was completed just hours before Boris Johnson announced the closure of all schools in March 2020.
Furthermore, we managed to negotiate our own, uniquely difficult circumstances about our site to a very satisfactory conclusion. At the time of writing this article, in March 2023, the lease for the school site had technically expired just over a week previously. As predicted, the landlord did apply for planning permission to redevelop our site in July 2022, but after a long, costly legal process, the landlord confirmed that it would not contest the school’s plan to renew the lease in late February.
Thanks to the new iteration of the school, we have built up sufficient resources to overcome this extremely challenging ordeal. As you might well imagine, we are now taking steps to ensure there is no repeat in the future. Equally, due to the strong brand and resonant ethos of the Kingswood House provision, we did not lose a single pupil during this time frame. In fact we increased our numbers on roll thanks to careful, honest and regular communication with parents both in-person and online. We controlled the narrative and so got our message across effectively. The value of good communication and cementing a bond of trust with all stakeholders can hardly be overstated when it comes to effective change management.
The future of the school is now well set, with the reassurance of long-term security on the site, an established pathway up to GCSE and a blossoming co-educational offering. Financial projections are strong and overall this is a great platform from which to consider the school’s onward trajectory over the next five years, a period of time which will no doubt bring its own issues for school leaders in general to circumnavigate such as the potential for a change in government, loss of charitable status and imposition of VAT on fees.
My advice for school leaders is to think creatively with strategic planning, root all decisions back to effective data and, above all, ensure that you bring people with you in a shared narrative. This is easier said than done, I warrant, but schools are fundamentally human places and forming meaningful relationships is pivotal to the successful delivery of a strategic plan. If you get the personal element wrong, it will not matter how good the planning is or how compelling the data because they will be redundant. Strategic change is all about the management of people.
The confidence with which Kingswood House was able to embark upon its strategic iteration up to GCSE, while accommodating a growing percentage of SEND pupils, and moving to co- education after 121 years as a boys’ school, was ultimately rooted in the hard statistics of a major data project. While I instinctively believed that these decisions would provide our school with a significant niche in the local market, the report we commissioned confirmed my thinking in black and white, with accurate evidence, from which my board was able to reach a considered, informed decision to back the considerable ambition of the development plan in front of them.
Accordingly, my trustees and team deserve the final mention in this piece. Without an open-minded and supportive board of governors, the outcome for the school would have been very different. They listened, they acted and they backed me at a time when it would have been easy to ignore the impending danger. Leadership and governance is all about looking around corners – not running into brick walls. Similarly, my team of teaching and support staff have been remarkable in their openness to change while the school has evolved around them. They have embraced change and recognised the part they had to play in winning the confidence of pupils and parents. On a daily basis, they planned and differentiated for a broad range of ability with passion; it is abundantly clear that working in our school is an informed choice; certainly, it is not an easy task but it is definitely rewarding. There is a real sense of pride in the staff room. For my team, making a difference to the children in their care is sufficient motivation – and they can see the fruit of their labours every day with the happiness and progress of our boys and girls because they feel valued.
The next few years will require all school leaders to think carefully and plan ahead in order to future-proof their business models as the storm clouds gather over Westminster. For any school to plot its course through the swelling tempest that’s likely to engulf the independent sector, serious discussions should be taking place around the boardroom table, together with clear action points for review at the next meeting. Optimal use of contextual data, research and strategic consultancy should form the nucleus of this process – but the expedition of any development plan will only ever be as effective as the school leadership’s ability to articulate and communicate its messaging to a variety of stakeholders. Ultimately, the meaningful formation and retention of strong, professional relationships based upon integrity, respect and trust are the key to successful change management.
Duncan Murphy is the chief executive of Kingswood House School and the director of education for MTM Consulting. He is a member of IAPS and the Society of Heads.