Futureproof schools for success

  • 10th July 2023

Anita Gleave

Chatsworth Schools’ founder and chief executive Anita Gleave reveals the thinking and practicalities involved in adding schools to the group

At Chatsworth Schools we are fundamentally educationalists and proudly so. The decisions we take, the vision we follow, and our core purpose always start with the children. I have had the privilege over the past 30-plus years of starting schools, bringing schools back from the economic brink, adding significant scale to schools and indeed in acquiring schools – in total more than 60 such events. There is no blueprint, there is no predictability and there is no ‘we always do it this way’. Why? Because we are in the people business and most importantly we are in the education business, not a business which happens to be in education.

Although often seasonal, the rhythm of schools requiring help, coming up for sale, being in crisis, is never predictable. It’s rarely straightforward but always humbling and, when successful, the ability to provide more outstanding futures for more children is an absolute blessing.

I would describe our acquisitional mindset as ‘futureproofing’ in that when we are considering acquiring schools and nurseries, we first challenge ourselves to answer how can we add real value to a school’s community: for its staff, parents and principally its children? If we feel we can, then and only then do we continue in our efforts to acquire, and then integrate the school into our family.

While sharing our core values of integrity, resilience and passion, all of our schools are fiercely and proudly independent. We actively encourage it. And to be able to grow like we have, we are reliant on a wonderful stable of school leaders and educators who come with us for new chapters of that individual school’s story. It’s crucial to have excellent leadership and a period of learning and immersion when you acquire a new school. Every school and community is different and must be respected and understood to genuinely integrate a new school into a group’s culture and family. In four years, we have built a school group consisting of 10 independent schools, a cluster of nurseries and an international school in Saudi Arabia.

In 2018, Chatsworth Schools was nearly over before it began. We were introduced to a school called HSW – Hall School Wimbledon. In its prime it had been a beacon school – co-ed, non-selective, progressive, two good-sized campuses and playing fields to die for – sadly, it had fallen very publicly on hard times. Between Ofsted reports, the press and the police, the school had gained a poor reputation. Staffed for 550, with a falling roll below 200, it was far from beacon – or if it was, it was a flashing blue light kind.

I was strongly and loudly advised against HSW being our founding school – warned we would never recover. And yet I felt it – I felt its soul. The school was deliberately unique, it had its place in the community, it was loved by all who once loved it and it deserved to be loved again. And so HSW became the founding school of our family.

Regrets – never. Challenges – so many where do I start? From moving to one site, to staff restructuring, coming out of Ofsted Good with Outstanding within 14 weeks, to now, less than five years on, opening a sixth form and enjoying record numbers of pupils. Yet, that soul, that unique spirit, that differentiator in the community is still strongly evident and we still proudly ask our HSW pupils not “how smart are you?” but rather – “how are you smart?”. And we start their educational journey with us from there. We always start with the child.

Another of our schools, Pattison in Coventry has a proud history. Started by Miss Pat as a Saturday morning dance school, it morphed over the years into an all-through school with a post-16 dance offering. It was arranged across two complicated buildings which were not always conducive to flexible class numbers, and was located in a busy area within Coventry city centre. It also had to contend with competing schools which were growing aggressively with enviable facilities, war chest reserves and very low fees – so the school had its challenges.

A falling roll below 100, many part-time staff, underinvestment in infrastructure, inadequate staff development and weak marketing, made this aquisitionm even more challenging. Oh, did I mention the global pandemic six months after it joined us?

With so little tech and lack of staff training in ICT, the school had a very ropey time. However, that commitment to the individual, the small class size, the passion for the performing arts, the dedication of long-serving, truly committed staff made all too compelling a case. We limped through Covid. As we entered the brave new world, we created a ‘life support’ plan to futureproof the school.

This involved installing a new head and all of the risks that that can bring, significant investment, staff training and development, and indeed new staff. It involved the introduction of the Chatsworth Tapestry – our unique curriculum overlay which aims to give all pupils the toolkit they need to meet and exceed the challenges of a world they are yet to face and of which we cannot predict. It focuses on six core competencies including entrepreneurship, wellbeing and sustainability – and, most importantly, it enables us to focus on the individual child.

The school is an amazing success story. Having grown by more than 50% in 12 months is staggering, to be actively engaged in acquiring new buildings, to expand and add a sixth form is testament to the vision and outstanding leadership which will futureproof this school when – on its own – it would have faced closure – evidence, if it were needed, of commitment, tenacity and staying true to one’s mission and values.

It was Teddy Roosevelt who said: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

We have a group of people who live their lives well – each one of them, in their own, individual way in their individual jobs, choose not to live an easy life but choose to strive because, at the end of the day, they are all our children.

Keep Updated

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest news.