It has been a challenging year for any organisation in Scotland and the independent schools sector in Scotland is no different. Rising prices, energy costs, growing wage bills, the aftermath of Covid and the shrinking spending power of parents have all taken their toll. Add to that the imposition of business rates for independent schools in Scotland in 2020 and it’s not surprising  schools are feeling the pinch.

Kilgraston School at Bridge of Earn in Perthshire was a high profile example when in June it announced it was closing its doors due to financial struggles and a decline in pupil numbers. 

However it was saved and is still in business – albeit with new backers in the form of Achieve Education. The company had stepped in after an appeal launched by parents and alumni raised £1.2m in just 48 hours. 

Kilgraston’s headteacher, Tanya Davie said: “The future of Kilgraston is strong and bright. We are moving into the next stage of the life of the school, one which has security for our renowned academic, sporting, performing arts and pastoral provision. 

“For us, Achieve Education is more than an investor, the group includes two familiar Kilgraston faces: Mike Farmer, headteacher from 2003 to 2012, and Barry Farrell, Kilgraston’s bursar from 2000 to 2019. 

“Having their experience and knowledge of our school on the management board ensures we start the new academic year from a position of strength as they have a deep love for Kilgraston, a connection and history with the school. 

“We have had a strong start to the 2023-2024 academic year, and we are looking ahead to celebrating our centenary year in 2030.”

The resilience of the sector is remarkable and it has been earned over many years with headline-grabbing high academic results and sporting excellence and, in the recent past, by the way independent schools reacted swiftly and flexibly to Covid. 

The organisation which represents the sector, the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), reported in April that numbers have held up well, with 29,414 pupils at its 71 member schools in 2022. This figure has remained above the 29,000 mark since 2015, only dipping to 28,724 in the 2020 census. 

With a total of 3,549 teaching staff, it means one teacher for every eight pupils in SCIS schools. 

Boarding remains an important part of the sector, with 2,745 pupils boarding – including 1,087 from overseas – at SCIS schools in 2022. Again, this number has increased since Covid. 

“International pupils play a central role in this and their return to Scotland’s independent schools is highly welcomed,” said Alison Herbert, deputy director of external relations at SCIS, when the census was published in April.

“We value diversity in our schools and want to continue to see international and Scottish students alike choose a SCIS school,” she added.

Scotland’s independent schools have an enviable reputation for offering a wide range of subjects, exam qualifications and specialist staff which lets them develop a full understanding of each child’s learning style, interests and motivations in order to teach pupils in a way that benefits the individual the most. 

Most independent schools provide the option to take a mix of qualifications, whether that be Scottish Qualifications Authority certificates, A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate. More than 90 per cent of independent school students go on to university. 

Independent schools invest considerable resources in technology and the technological know-how, innovation, creative problem solving, transferable skills and a global mindset generated by this approach are essential qualities for tomorrow’s workforce. 

However, independent schools place equal emphasis on activities outside the classroom.  They provide a huge range of extra-curricular activities, including sport, outdoor education, the performing arts and community service which help children grow – physically, socially and in confidence.  

Another important feature of independent schools is the financial assistance that is available to families. In 2022, 24.2 per cent of students attending independent schools received some form of financial support from their school, with 3.2 per cent of senior students having their places fully funded by the school. 

The total value of this assistance – means-tested bursaries – provided by SCIS members is more than £55.6 million per year.  

“Fee assistance has more than doubled in the past 12 years,” Herbert explained to The Business in April. 

“Every school has increased its support to families since the Charities Act in 2005 and it must now be at least three times higher than before the act was in place.”

The Charities Act put two obligations on independent schools. One was to ensure that the public benefit that accrued to the school from being a not-for-profit charity exceeded the private benefit that accrued to those who used the charity – the pupils and the families. 

“The other thing was if your charity charges fees – all of our schools are charities – you had to do something to ensure those fees were not disproportionately large to prevent people accessing the services of the charity, namely the school’s education,” said Herbert.

That charity test saw independent schools increase the means-tested bursary provision that they had. 

Maintaining the independent schools’ record on all fronts will underpin much of what is in the inbox for the new chief executive of SCIS, Lorraine Davidson who took up the post in the summer.

She joins from the Scottish Government where she held roles including head of education strategy, during which time she was responsible for the National Discussion on Education, head of vaccine oversight during the Covid rollout, and head of European engagement in the run up to Brexit. 

Before that Davidson worked at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and NHS Health Scotland, having also been a political correspondent for STV, the BBC and The Times. 

At SCIS, she certainly has the relevant background to lead the organisation which both represents the sector in the policy-making arena and keeps the schools informed about how policies impact them. It also supports the schools’ staff by organising professional learning events. 

SCIS is also instrumental in promoting the availability of financial assistance with school fees for families, which ensures an independent education is accessible and affordable.