Why do schools fail?

  • 4th April 2024

Inspired Learning’s Saint Felix School in Raydon, Suffolk

Inspired Learning Group’s Amit Mehta questions whether selling a school to a commercial operator is seen as a failure

Schools are facing challenging times. Inflationary pressures have seen leaders having to make tough decisions to increase fees to remain viable. But we cannot continue merely passing on costs to hard-pressed parents; we need to become more efficient and more businesslike. Indeed, the likelihood of a new government suggests independent schools may lose their charitable status, exacerbating the urgency of finding new ways to generate revenue and remain open to the communities we serve.

Ten years ago, I began my journey of turning around struggling schools. In that time, we have acquired 17 independent schools and seven nurseries. With great pride, I can say that we have not closed a single setting, and all are excelling without external backing.

I have learned that all good schools flourish in similar ways. Successful schools find a tangible mission they can work towards with passion, and retain a clear sense of identity that can withstand change, loss and acquisition. In this way, they mirror modern businesses. As we brace for change, it’s vital that we return to these basic principles, identifying our purpose and responding to the demands of our key stakeholders.

Struggling schools face myriad difficulties and we have seen many examples of trustees fearing takeover, governors making inappropriate investment decisions, and an increase in non-contact time as pupil numbers decline. All are symptoms of a reluctance to take early decisive, and sometimes, difficult decisions.

Solid foundations

In 2014, my children lived through the most unimaginable period of difficulty any child can know. Nothing in life could have prepared them for the loss of their mother, but I found some comfort in knowing that school was the one place where my children could find stability, consistency and certainty.

Our schools are the spaces we give to our children as they discover their strengths and learn resilience in a safe environment. Schools matter, because they provide the regularity to shape a child’s fundamental assumptions about themselves and the world around them. It is crucial, therefore, that we build our schools with the care and purpose needed to take them through that journey, start to finish.

Why I believe schools fail

Schools fail when they lose sight of their purpose. Parents acknowledge the challenge schools have in balancing numerous priorities – and the time it takes to effect change. They want to be heard and to see the school is moving towards a vision they can understand.

At the heart of this is a clear mission statement. Competitive schools clearly understand who they are and what they represent. They acknowledge headwinds and make tough decisions. They model for the worst and aspire for the best, evolving where necessary without losing brand identity.

Schools must learn from the corporate world to align profitability with a brand that can endure. Business is not a dirty word; we can only continue our work if we are profitable. But this is only possible by delivering on a core promise to parents that we will give their children the best start.

Over the years, I have acquired several schools on the brink of closure. To close would be a badge of failure, but to ask for help from a commercial operator is not. The most common mistake schools make is procrastinating and leaving it too late to reform internal practices, losing track of the plan and justifying poor budgetary choices without stepping back. Often, we see schools that are asset-rich yet cash-poor. But selling an asset and applying the cash elsewhere does not solve the problem.

What we have learned

Schools close when they stop talking to their stakeholders and understanding their needs. They fail when they continue making poor investment decisions without reference to a commercially viable plan. Charities might meet once a term, so decisions are delayed; a more corporate approach is to take action.

When we step in, we move fast. We begin by surveying staff and parents anonymously to assess their needs. We speak to pupils to quantify the gap between what they need and what we need to offer – and draw up remedial plans with both ambition and commercial realism. A swimming pool is not a priority when parents are asking for new IT equipment – but we only know that by engaging with them.

Strategy sessions bring it together, organised with urgency and regularity. We delegate clear responsibilities and set congruent goals. We carry out cost-benefit analyses based on need, set clear deadlines, and hold ourselves accountable with termly updates in parent-facing communications and a longer-term strategic plan. When we deliver, we celebrate our success.

Schools that join a group benefit immeasurably from the efficiency of centralised functions such as recruitment, procurement, energy, insurance, and the ability to AB test and share best practice. But we will not interfere with a trusted identity by overwriting branding or undermining local community allegiances. The strongest asset a school has is the brand identity it has built over generations, becoming synonymous with the community it serves.

How we grow our schools

It is challenging to learn a commercial mindset, but the leaders that survive periods of change have passion. Business acumen develops that passion into something with direction and strategy.

We hire our heads for their academic excellence and we run academies to enable them to develop commercial thinking. This creates supportive environments that empower them to make mindful decisions about future challenges, including how to build up reserves. We support our leaders to think as chief executives and to care about their school as a business.

We support schools on the path to profitability by anticipating future demands and expanding their provision and facilities. We work with local businesses and international partners to deliver a unique offer that responds to need. We source specialists in emerging technologies who can add immediate value to classes with vision that truly serves our pupils.

Thriving within a commercial group

We can grow without losing the sense of who we are. Leaders should justify commercial decisions with data that addresses demand. But they must take these decisions with ambition, reinforcing the school’s identity and values to build an environment that celebrates young people.

Charitable status has come into question with the looming prospect of a Labour government. Many schools are now considering alliances, or joining a commercial group, for the first time. There is understandable anxiety, but uniting around common principles is not a failure if we keep sight of our purpose and let go of outdated traditions. Success is delivering for our students. Failure is when schools hold on for too long to outdated thinking and are forced to close. That catastrophic loss to the continuity of learning affects pupils, families, staff and the community.

My children are now young adults. They will soon embark on the next stage of their education at university. School has been a constant for the majority of their lives, through the highs and lows. As a parent and entrepreneur, I know children are our future. Taking bold decisions ensures that every child attending school is given the opportunity to learn in a safe, encouraging and inspiring environment for many generations to come. This is what our schools stand for, with the children at the heart of everything we do.

Pupils at Inspired’s Yateley Manor School in Hampshire

Key messages

  • Learn from everyone: data is king. Before embarking on any big change, get the lay of the land by consulting with the people who will be most affected by any new decision.
  • Work smarter: using a framework to set achievable goals within a determined time frame that you can measure gives you accountability and helps justify changes where they are needed.
  • Work with your community: make the most of your assets by renting out spaces when students are not in school to use resources better and address the needs of current and prospective stakeholders.
  • Know who you are: agree the basic values of your business and share them with stakeholders. A clear code of expectations keeps you accountable and helps your partners stay on track when seas are stormy.
  • Be bold: try new things. A-B test small changes and measure the results. Make a strong offer to parents by changing their expectations of what a school can be, working with foreign partners, building courses for the world ahead and challenging stagnant practices.


Amit Mehta is chief executive of Inspired Learning Group.

Amit Mehta

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