What can Independent Schools learn from the Higher Education Sector when it comes to talent selection?

Independent schools, like many sectors, are facing unprecedented challenges with the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis and soaring energy prices. More than two thirds of staff at universities and independent schools say that it has negatively impacted their finances, while nearly a third fear that their institution may be at risk of closure (29%). *2 With the explosion of new academies popping up across the country, parents are questioning why they should pay higher tuition fees. These challenges, are however, not entirely unprecedented – they’re remarkably similar to those challenges faced in higher education over the last few years, and yet the bubble hasn’t burst for them – seen by the UCAS numbers for the 2022 academic year, which are predicted to be even higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Over the last decade there has been enormous change in the higher education (HE) sector, to respond to the national, and global competition. We have seen that HE is building and developing large-scale infrastructural changes and developing organisational practices, including trying to change staff attitudes and behaviours.  Both universities and independent schools have been quick to identify new revenue streams to help offset financial challenges. One in five (22%) independent schools have sought partnerships with commercial organisations, and there has also been significant gains in efficiencies, with 40% reviewing suppliers in an effort to find local or better value options. All across the industry, schools are being pushed to think outside the box when it comes to balancing the books.

The 2008 banking collapse was the initial catalyst for change within HE; whilst transformational change has generally been seen as too much of a risk, it’s certainly something that we have seen more of in light of the global pandemic. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Policy Exchange identified finance as one of three key areas that universities needed to urgently address. At the time, the report stated that “the sector is not in crisis, but it could be if action is not taken”.3 The past 2 years have subsequently pushed the higher education institution’s financial state much closer to the forefront of concerns, and transformational change by these institutions is now essential if they want to survive.

Where many universities have been successful in creating this change is through the structuring of leadership teams with varied commercial skillsets, and the formation of professional services. Across these teams, there’s a blend of professionals from both the Education sector and those with HR, Finance, IT, Estates and Marketing expertise. Essentially, a team of professionals with the student experience at the heart of decision making.

What does this mean for the future of independent schools? We think that schools will need to make similar adjustments to that of Higher Education. They must confront core issues and ask honest questions on the value they provide and showcase their unique selling points. Strategies must be well researched and articulated to parents and pupils. We have to accept that a one size fits all approach to education isn’t the answer.

Crucially, the role of the Bursar/COO will become more critical, as they’ll need to work in harmoniously with Heads. Schools are investing in professionals whose skills complement those of the teaching staff. We are already seeing Directors of Estates, HR, Marketing, and IT roles coming to the marketplace with salaries comparable to that of the private sector.

Given the development in their talent pool building, could the Higher Education sector be a resource area for Independent Schools – both house individuals that understand education and have led transformational change, estate strategies, marking and admission functions and digital implementation.


Case Study –  Sean Connor

We met with Sean Connor – Director of Estates at Kings College School Wimbledon and formerly Estate Asset Manager at Kingston University Service Company (KUSCO)to find out how he has found the move from higher education into independent schools.

“Having worked in higher education (HE), it gave me a head start on joining as the Director of Estates at Kings College School (KCS). I already had an appreciation for education and an understanding from working with academic communities. HE has lots of procedures which have been developed over the years that allow services to function more quickly, I was able to quickly implement some of these which has improved the estates function at the school. HE is fortunate to have exposure into lots of research and innovation, which schools wouldn’t have access to – there is certainly an opportunity for HE to share some of this insight.

The HE sector is really good at engaging with students, and at KCS our students are really driving the agenda for change. Our pupil forum is pushing on sustainability, they want to understand our green targets –

One of the challenges in HE is scale and complexity of the organisation, there are various stakeholders involved in decision making. We are lucky at KCS that we have a dynamic and engaging leadership team and supportive governing body, with the ability to adapt and implement change.

I was really attracted by the independent school sector as it gave me the career progression that I might not been able to achieve in Higher Education. I am fortunate to work in one the best schools in London with some amazing facilities.

I certainly feel that there is an opportunity for the HE and independent sector to work more closely in sharing ideas and best practice.”

Although Higher Education operates in a different way, are there enough similarities to help guide the independent school sector? Victoria Espley, currently Foundation Bursar at Warwick Schools and former Bursar at Hughes Hall Cambridge said:

“There are several similarities between Higher Education and the Independent School sector. I was attracted to the Independent School sector as I could see the impact I could have as the schools seek to transform their estates, IT and customer service approach. Fundamentally, those that operate in Higher Education or Independent Schools have a passion for education and are able to bring valuable corporate experience into the sector.  We need to get better at looking to alternative talent pools with transferrable skillsets, and higher education is a good starting point. “

With more fluidity between academies and independent schools we are likely to see more knowledge sharing and best practice, which can only be a good thing. Despite being in challenging economic times, the Independent School sector has a really interesting opportunity to adapt and change to meet the needs of their customers. We are excited to see how schools change their operational models moving forward.

MRG has a track record gained over a 15-year period within the Education sector and have worked with the leadership teams within both Schools and Universities to assist them with their organisational/transformation change.

Please contact our Independent Schools Team to find out more information.

Hayley Mintern – Business Sector Director

Melanie Pye – Practice Manager


3 https://www.publicpolicyexchange.co.uk/event.php?eventUID=LG29-PPE


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