Three years ago I said the business model of most independent schools was either broken or unsustainable. My thesis was that most private schools were inefficiently run because of several factors including:
- asset heavy structures
- inflexible delivery modes – low pupil teacher ratios also equals labour inefficiency
- approach to IP – instantly created and consumed but not often captured, reused or analysed
- vocational tension – are they schools, businesses or both?
I was reminded of these issues on a recent trip to Australia where the media was filled with stories about private schools. In Australia private education is a political and social issue, but nothing like what we see in the UK. British private (independent) schools educate 7% of students, but seem to be the ‘tail that wags the dog’ when it comes to the debate about education. The arguments and enmity independent schools seem to provoke is completely out of proportion and more a reflection of unresolved issues around class, privilege and politics in Britain than anything of substance in education.
But in February, the ructions in Australian private schools hit the headlines when the Presbyterian Church sacked the Council of Scots College (Sydney) because, “The application of the governance model being pursued by the Council was resulting in corporate objectives outweighing the educational mission of The Scots College”. In a statement to the ABC, Jeoffrey Falls, the Church’s General Manager tried to spin the action as not a sacking or takeover, “To be clear, there are no plans to change the ownership, governance by the trustees or the operations of the college”. Except that’s not quite how it looked when the new Council immediately expunged the names of the former Council members from the school’s website. Thankfully the Internet Waybackmachine, the scourge of redactors, helps keep such information available indefinitely.
This very public spat began when the old Council were seen to have delayed renewing the contract of Scots’ Principal, Dr Ian Lambert. Lambert’s 9 years at Scots’ is less than the average (12 years) of his seven predecessors (since 1893) but is substantially longer than the 4.8 year average for CEOs at Australia’s successful companies (according to PWC’s 2015 15th CEO Succession Survey) and far longer than the average Australian Prime Minister, who serves less than 3.5 years (my rough calculation).
More recently, both sides have been involved in a guerrilla war of media leaks. One reported in The Australian (April 14), quotes the head of Scots’ new management committee, comparing working with the dismissed Council as akin to “negotiating with ISIS”. The same story then quotes ex-teacher, former coach of the Australian Wallabies and now influential broadcaster, Alan Jones as saying, “There are a lot of people on these boards who are often very dogmatic and very opinionated, and they think they are running Macquarie Bank; Scots isn’t the only school going through this. These people talk in a bureaucratic language which is anathema to contemporary education, and it’s based on money and the bottom line, but … what gets people through the gate comes down to educational outcomes.’’
To put the current situation into perspective, Scots’ difficulties are not without precedence; similar upheavals occurred in 2012 and in 1979 respectively at Methodist Ladies College and Scotch College, both in Melbourne.
So, how do you manage a complex educational organisation with sizeable cash flow (Scots charges A$30k+ per student p.a.), assets potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and also deliver high-quality education that meets the expectations of parents and other key stakeholders including the Presbyterian Church, government educational authorities and regulators?
I think only a tiny number of educators have this skill set and that the roles of Principal/Head of Education (CEO) and Head of Operations (COO) should be distinct. However, to succeed there needs to be more reasoned debate and nuanced management than seems to have been the case at Scots.
Finally, what struck me most about this farrago was the gap between rhetoric and reality. On their website Scots boast about their A$100k ‘investment’ in a “hypoxic simulated altitude-training environment”. I wonder, was this done for educational or business reasons?