Are independent schools about to boost academy trusts’ recruitment gap?

Published by Phil Reynolds on 26 September 2019

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The start of a new academic year is a fresh start for all and of exciting new beginnings for many. When it comes to school budgets though, there isn’t much change. The pressures continue with all schools seeing a 40 per cent rise in employer pension contributions towards the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) introduced this month.

While the Department for Education (DfE) has said it will fund this increase for state schools until the next spending review, private schools are having to fund this increase themselves. As Schools Week has reported, 62 private schools in the UK have informed the government that they plan to withdraw from TPS to avoid the increased costs. Some schools have suggested that they would have to raise fees to cover the costs or, in extreme cases, close down.

Should more private schools leave the scheme in the near future, the knock-on effect to state schools could be very interesting.

Firstly, the departure of private schools paying into the scheme could result in further contribution increases for state schools to cover the deficit. It is estimated that private schools contribute nearly 10% of the total scheme bill each year. That will need to be replaced, but state schools surely can’t suffer another significant increase, so government needs to consider now how this would be funded.

Secondly, how will private-school teachers react to the loss of what is effectively a lucrative pension pot? Private schools are not obliged to join the TPS. In fact, they need government permission to do so, and that is conditional on all staff being either in or out of the scheme. Effectively, any private school with a TPS arrangement is already offering an incentive they do not have to offer. By leaving the scheme, they will surely have to look for an alternative arrangement, but will those be as rewarding, and incentive enough for teachers to stay?

If no alternatives can be found, teachers may well decide to leave and seek employment within the state sector. Evidence of unhappiness at such a decision has already been seen. As recently as June, teachers at a private school in Oxford went on strike over their employer’s plans to exit the TPS. It’s not unreasonable to expect this will happen again.

But teachers leaving private schools could be the boost the state sector needs. Recruitment for new teachers continues to be a challenge for many and this could prove to be a solution, at least in the short term. Salaries will be higher than those of new trainees, but the increase to the starting salary cap will negate some of the difference as it rolls out. Experience, new ideas and a fresh perspective to curriculum will close the gap in right-thinking school leaders’ minds.

The alternative – that private schools mainly try to remain in the TPS – would mean increasing fees to cover the cost, at the risk of a sudden drop in pupil numbers as parent purse strings tighten. The Independent Schools Council has already identified that private school fees have doubled over the past 15 years; further increases could be the last straw.

State schools could reap the benefit as students join their intake, bringing with them additional funding. On the flip side, a large spike in student numbers requires employing more teachers, making recruitment a problem again.

Teacher costs and recruitment appear locked in a vicious cycle. As the new term gets under way, there is little sign that government has worked out how to break it and set the sector on a new footing. The unintended consequences of pensions policy could win them a reprieve on recruitment, but it’s unlikely to entirely mask a growing list of underlying problems.

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