Money streams

  • 12th June 2024

Leanne Chandler reports on the Schools’ Enterprise Association’s annual conference and explains how schools can make the most of a diversified revenue stream


The independent school sector is at a crossroads. With a traditional reliance on tuition fees as their primary source of revenue, the rising cost of education and a potential change in government is prompting a shift in approach. As a result, independent schools are starting to look at the wider strategy which includes a renewed focus and emphasis on commercial acumen to diversify revenue streams and change the way the schools are run.

The Schools’ Enterprise Association (SEA) pulled together commercial managers and bursars from a wide range of independent schools at its annual conference at Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey, looking at the theme ‘1+1 = 3: Driving synergy and improving returns’.

The conference, hosted by SEA chief executive Dorothy McLaren, and the chief operating officer of Alleyn’s School, Guy Collins-Down, provided a space for attendees, including bursars, chief operating officers, and enterprise and commercial managers, to discuss how schools can start to future-proof against upcoming changes and increased pressure.

A focus on the commercial

A key aspect of diversifying revenue is the development of aligned commercial programmes – the co-commercial aspect of school life. While some stakeholders may be hesitant to embrace an increased focus on non-fee revenue generation, it’s important to remember that independent schools are businesses and the need to generate and sustain additional revenue streams has never been more acute.

It was clear that attendees realise commercialisation doesn’t mean independent schools should abandon their educational mission – ‘dual-use, school-first’ should be at the heart of any commercial consideration. Increasing non-fee revenues enables schools to focus better on their educational mission by providing them with the resources they need to continue to offer high-quality education and pastoral care.

Collins-Down feels the focus of how schools are run should be moving more along the lines of how businesses operate. He said: “If I were the CEO of a FTSE 100 company and I was only using my facilities 30% of the time, I’d be fired. The opportunities have always been there, schools have just never had to tap into them. It’s the schools that have already begun to explore these opportunities that will benefit most. While achieving internal buy-in can be difficult, it’s time to start thinking outside the box. ‘No’ doesn’t always mean no – it can mean ‘not now’ or ‘not like that’.”

Top-down approach

Getting buy-in and support from your governors, senior leadership teams and broader staff, and embedding the commercial aspect of school life into the school’s strategy is key to ensuring that schools build sustainable, long-term value-add commercial ventures. Governors are starting to understand this and many governing bodies are requesting training and advice in this area, including changes to approach and wider governance structure reviews.

As well as responsibility for setting the strategic vision and determining the overall aims and conduct of the school, governors’ remit also includes understanding the opportunities for enterprise projects within the school and providing the right level of support for this increased, focused commercial activity.

Mark Taylor, chair of AGBIS, said: “Reducing fee income dependency needs to be a focus. This is about diversifying the income. Setting the strategic plan for the school will be key and it is important that UK schools start to move closer to the American model where, on average, fee reliance is only around 65%.” In the UK, it is estimated that reliance on fee income is around 98%.

Diversification of income, however, has to extend beyond simply letting out your swimming pool or sports hall in the evening. It needs to be a focus on building life-changing and mutually beneficial partnerships and addressing wider income generation activities – developing sustainable long-term value-add programmes.

“If, for example, fundraising is done properly it is still buoyant,” says Taylor. “Development roles will become increasingly important and this can cover a number of income generational activities from improving relationships with alumni, finding innovative ways to protect future initiatives, and looking at international franchise school development.”

Haberdashers’ Elstree Schools has worked to combine efforts across its sites in order to make the most of the opportunities, Rob Dunn, chief operating officer of Haberdashers’ Elstree Schools noted when looking at diversification of income: “If we didn’t do something about it, we’d be letting the children in our schools down. We’ve developed the operational capability to create a framework which works across our selection of schools. This is about creating a co-commercial strategy and we had the support of our governing body which is incredibly important.”

Bring the school community with you

As most seasoned commercial directors and bursars will tell you, one of the most crucial (but often the most difficult) aspects is bringing the school community with you as you explore a more commercial approach to non-fee revenues. Strong education and co-curricular models and cooperation with a range of departments across the school’s community will be key in ensuring success.

By strategically expanding income sources, independent schools can unlock the full potential of their resources and staff. This not only strengthens our financial resilience in challenging times, but also fosters deeper connections within the community and positions us as leaders in innovative education and community engagement, all while staying true to the core mission.

Setting out key pillars can be crucial to achieving this buy-in. Haberdashers’ Elstree has looked at ensuring that five key ‘asset’ pillars remain at the core of its co-commercial strategy across the schools: education, co-curricular, community and public benefit, provenance, and buildings and facilities.

Independent schools can maximise their potential by fostering collaboration across internal departments. Marketing and admissions teams, for example, can become strong proponents of commercial activities when they understand the overall benefits. Sharing resources, like a school sports field with a local primary school after hours, can generate income while forging long-term partnerships through joint events or programmes. These interactions may ultimately lead to increased interest and admissions for the independent school.

Additionally, data collected by marketing and admissions departments holds great value. By analysing these insights, schools can gain a deeper understanding of their target audience and community needs. This knowledge allows them to tailor commercial activities for maximum impact and correspondingly attract potential students to the school.

Collaboration shouldn’t be confined to within a single institution. Engaging with competitors can be a powerful tool. Sharing best practices and exploring joint ventures can strengthen the entire independent school sector. This collaborative approach, coupled with utilising all available skillsets – marketing, admissions, finance etc – allows schools to future-proof their pipelines and ensure a flourishing educational landscape for all.

Parents are the primary stakeholders in independent schools. It is important to keep parents informed about the school’s policies and programmes. It is also important to listen to parents’ concerns and suggestions.

The time is now

Independent schools should also be willing to change. The educational landscape is constantly changing, and independent schools need to be willing to adapt in order to stay competitive. This may mean changing the curriculum, offering new programmes, or adopting new technologies.

By focusing on strategically aligned, quality programmes, engaging parents and the wider stakeholders and being willing to embrace change, independent schools can future-proof their schools and ensure that they continue to provide their students with the best possible education.


Leanne Chandler is chair of the Schools’ Enterprise Association and director of operations at Denstone College.

Leanne Chandler

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