How are we doing?
Making difficult decisions in difficult times
A survey for the February 2021 COBIS Bursars, Business Managers and HR Staff Conference, throws light on how schools are steering a course through the troubled waters of the pandemic. Paul Cabrelli and Andy Homden report.
The world turned upside down
International school leaders are a hardy bunch, used to the pressures of competition, parental expectation and the vagaries of international stability. But in 2020 established norms wobbled and fell apart.
International schools are being tested as never before. Just how are they responding?
The 2021 COBIS Conference for Bursars, Business Managers and HR staff was (of course) held virtually in February, almost exactly a year on from the start of the Covid crisis, and provided an opportunity to pause and take stock of how schools had been affected.
In the spirt of sharing, we asked delegates from participating schools to take part in a short survey in which they were asked to reflect on the theme of ‘difficult decisions in difficult times’. 35 schools replied and responses were discussed during a 45-minute session.
Impact on finances
So – what did we learn? Of course, the sample is small, but there was a wide range of experiences described and interesting elements of convergence and divergence emerged. First things first. It is no surprise to learn that 24 respondents (69%) agreed that the pandemic has had a negative impact on school finances, coming as it did completely out of the blue half way through the northern hemisphere school year.
Interestingly, though, 9 respondents neither agreed nor disagreed, and 2 did not agree at all – so perhaps it has not been universally bad news for everyone. Moreover, 14 of the 35 schools (40%) were not expecting enrolment to fall in 2021 – 22, though whether or not this was because the hit had already been taken in 2020 – 21 is not clear.
2021 – 22: a difficult year to budget for
Most schools (21/35, or 60%) also agreed that putting together next year’s budget was proving problematical, although for 6, budget planning seems to be moving ahead as usual.
16 schools were finding it more difficult than usual to bring their staffing calculations to a satisfactory conclusion, but again for 10 schools this does not seem to have been the case.
19 schools were anticipating a more difficult than usual recruiting season, and it seems clear that on the staffing front the coming few months are going to be challenging, with 10 schools agreeing that staffing cuts were ‘inevitable’. 11 more schools were just not sure, and 14 schools not anticipating cuts – though, again the hit might have already been taken.
Staff and ethos
A smallish minority of schools (5) were anticipating the replacement of overseas hired staff with locally hired teachers, and while 9 respondents had not taken a position on this issue, 21 were committed to maintaining their overseas cohort.
The desire to retain international teaching staff is also clearly related to a strong commitment to retaining the ethos of their school: 34/35 respondents were confident that they could ‘adapt to changing circumstances while remaining true to the school’s ethos and mission’.
We think this is particularly important and cited the example to changes in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic when schools lost long-term control of their admissions policy by changing the criteria for awarding school places.
The fact that some schools were confident that they could adapt while remaining true to themselves may have been linked to their ability to call on a reserve fund.
15 of the 35 respondents seem to have been able to do so to a lesser or greater extent, although 12 clearly could not and a further 3 regarded the area as ‘not applicable’. How exactly such a fund could be created in such exacting times led to discussion at the session. Was it relevant at all to those who did not have such a luxury? We believe that it was, drawing on the example of past experience when, during the height of the South East Asian currency crisis in 1997 and with no reserves to call on because of a recent building project to establish a new campus, the Board of a leading British international school in Asia decided to create a reserve fund, because the experience of not having one had been so traumatic. It was an important way of spreading the effects of ‘downturns’ into the future, ensured the long-term security of the school’s ethos and was to benefit the whole community in times to come.
What were the most difficult decisions?
We asked people what were the most difficult decisions their school had had to make in the course of the last year. Answers fell into three main categories:
- Finance and HR
- Operations and Provision
One can empathise with the soul searching that must have gone into reducing staff salaries, laying staff off and seeing families leave when fees could not be paid. The replies also suggest that there were three important strategies that have helped schools get through
- Standing firm when unpopular, but well-thought-out decisions had been made
- Communicating clearly, openly and honestly with the community
- Mitigating the impact of tough decisions on families with carefully discussed fee remission and instalment payments wherever possible
What were the best decisions?
Finally, we asked what were the best decisions the school had made. Although there were important answers with regard to finance, HR and community, the overwhelming number of responses was in the domain of operations and provision – decisions that ensured a safe return to on-campus learning, concerned investment in high quality software or a commitment to collaborating with other schools. Julia Thomson of Wingate School, showed us how schools in the Canary Islands had formed a group in which pandemic related issues could be discussed.
So – had decision making become any easier in the course of 2020? A little to our surprise 20 respondents thought that it really had. As Angela Fubler of Chatmore British International School explained, ‘It became easier for us to make decisions because the parameters within which they needed to be made were dramatically limited and/or they were being decided for us by the Government’
Ruth Noble of Baobab College, Lusaka, also emphasised how enhanced collaboration, more data, and just the experience gained in handling the situation all played a role.
Our take, is that schools adapted, then got used to the new conditions and, as they could see the positive impact of good decisions, gained confidence. It might not have felt like it at the time – but that’s how it appears to us.
Tellingly, respondents were overwhelmingly optimistic. 27 (77%) agreed that they could ‘see light at the end of the tunnel’ and 24 (69%) thought that 2021 – 22 was going to be better than 2020 – 21.
Things have clearly been tough, but on this evidence, British international schools are demonstrating the kind of resilience that can get them through this most challenging of times.
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Paul Cabrelli and Andy Homden are Senior Consultants at Consilium Education. Specialist areas include Business and Feasibility Planning for start-up and new international schools.
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