Fundraising for Schools – The Long View
As the UK’s oldest-established fundraising consultancy, Craigmyle has helped schools to navigate a variety of funding challenges since 1959. The company was founded by two men who were passionately interested in bringing a more professional approach to fundraising by schools based on contemporary American models. We have supported well over 400 school campaigns during our long history.
As independent schools consider how, in the likely event of a Labour Government being returned in the next General Election, proposed future changes to their VAT tax status could impact their fundraising needs and priorities, it is worth remembering that this will be just the latest in a long line of fundraising-related challenges they have needed to overcome during the past 75 years. Every generation has a few stories of enforced institutional closures or mergers (and of new schools opening too), but our overall impression is that the sector has been remarkably resilient and skilled at adapting to new circumstances.
Despite its radical reputation, it was not the post-war Labour Government that posed the main challenge to private education in the 1940s and 50s. Most grammar schools were now free at the point of entry following the 1944 Education Act, which helped them become more socially egalitarian while remaining academically selective. Others day schools offered a mix of fee and Government ‘direct grant’ maintained places, but private boarding schools were left alone. It was rumoured that Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s resistance to abolishing private school education was explained by his own loyalty to Haileybury.
Instead, the major challenges facing private schools related to their customer base, lack of modernity and the disappearance of their traditional sources of patronage. Britain’s rapid retreat from Empire resulted in a significant shrinkage in the supply of children being educated at boarding schools whose parents were posted overseas. Private education became more a matter of choice than necessity, which only worked if schools were prepared to invest in making their spartan premises and old-fashioned practices more modern and appealing.
Traditionally, many schools had relied on rich local patrons as a source of exceptional funding, but the decline in the fortunes of the landed upper classes meant such patrons were increasingly thin on the ground. This was the context in which the need to run professional fundraising campaigns that focused on alumni and parents as donors was first recognised in the UK, following a model already established in the US. During the 1960s, Craigmyle worked with numerous schools running what were typically two-year campaigns. A campaign for Charterhouse was the first to exceed its target. Such campaigns were usually run by a ‘Resident Campaign Director’, who was specially embedded in the school by Craigmyle for the campaign’s duration. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it became common practice for schools to appoint their own permanent development staff.
The educational debates of the 1970s were dominated by the campaign to end selective education and its implications for the future of local grammar and high schools. In counties that voted to go comprehensive, some schools now chose to become fully independent, particularly those that had benefitted from the Government’s Direct Grant Scheme, which was abolished. However, many schools were concerned that the move to a fully fee-based model would make them unaffordable to access for the lower middle-class and aspirant working-class families whose children they had traditionally educated. In fundraising terms, the changed landscape encouraged such schools to refocus on running shorter and more intensive appeals, now with a noticeable new focus on fundraising for school bursaries as well as better facilities. Craigmyle was engaged to run a significant number of ‘independence campaigns’ which helped schools make a success of their transition to becoming fully independent. After 1975, the constituent schools of the Girls’ Public Day School Trust (now the GDST) became a particularly important set of such clients for Craigmyle, which ran 19 separate appeals for these schools.
The 1980s and early 1990s were a more settled period for private education, not least because the Conservative Government restored help to the sector with its introduction of the Assisted Places Scheme in 1980. Of course, this development somewhat relieved the pressure on schools to invest in bursary provision and the focus of their fundraising efforts reverted again to capital projects aimed at improvements to premises and facilities. This trend was reflective of an era in which schools increasingly started to operate as businesses that aimed to attract pupils based on what they had to offer in terms of educational outcomes and extracurricular activities. A campaign of the 1990s, for Loretto School, was typical in its focus on investing in technological developments to ‘embrace the information revolution’. Meanwhile, an appeal brochure for Magdalen College School was refreshingly honest in acknowledging that independent schools were competing with one another for pupil applications. One consequence of this modern reality has been a recurring tendency within the sector for some institutions to view campaigns as a way of funding a facilities’ ‘arms race’ with their closest competitors.
In 1997, the new Labour Government’s abolition of the assisted places scheme had a profound impact on schools like Manchester Grammar School (MGS), which was funding a high proportion of places through the scheme to ensure that numerous boys from poorer homes could attend at reduced fees. The financial loss to the school was calculated to be worth £850,000 per year, which prompted the High Master to engage the services of Craigmyle to support MGS in carrying forward a successful £10 million bursary campaign that allowed it to offer fee support to over 200 boys annually. At the time, this was the largest sum ever raised by a school for a bursary campaign. MGS was not alone in recognising a need to prioritise fundraising for bursaries as part of its effort to preserve the school’s core charitable mission. At Bradford Grammar School, another Craigmyle client, the bursary appeal brochure made clear that the unwanted ending of the scheme ‘threatens the whole ethos and character of the school’.
The first two decades of 21st century have been a relatively benign period for independent schools in relation to government policy, albeit they have come under some increased pressure since the 2006 Charity Act to show that they are delivering a public benefit to justify their continued charitable status. Of course, it should be noted that only around half of the UK’s independent schools are still classified as charities. Many schools have embraced this challenge with vigour and committed to the vision of building up a substantial bursaries’ endowment. Practical success on the ground with bursary endowment fundraising has been more mixed. In the most ambitious cases, the eventual aim is to reach a point where all school entry is truly needs blind, a destination that holds out the prospect of the social mix within such schools becoming far more diverse. Laudable though this vision is, in terms of maximising opportunity and diversity, it will require huge amounts of fully endowed funds to be raised if it is to be realistic and sustainable (in many cases more than £100m) and it remains to be seen how many schools with such ambitions have the commitment and resources to deliver it.
Political and public debate over the role and status of independent schools within the British educational system is hardly new and is unlikely to go away. History suggests that independent schools are wise to plan for an uncertain future because the political landscape does periodically change in ways that can affect school finances to a significant degree. However, it also shows that the sector is remarkedly robust and generally adept at adapting to change, which should give it every confidence that it is highly likely to survive and thrive.