Here is the second of our series of insights during COVID-19 from Mr Andrew Hobbs, Headmaster from the stunning Downside School in beautiful Somerset. I have always admired the strength and sense of community at Downside School and this has never been more apparent than now.

We hope this insight helps you understand what is actually happening in the private education sector rather than speculation, helping to get businesses back to normal as quickly as possible.

We aim to post a sector each day and invite any other business leaders to contact me to take part and keep businesses informed.

Industry Insights from: Andrew Hobbs
Company: Downside School, Somerset
Position: Headmaster

Q1. Are you still operational as a business and is this currently normal in your sector?

Yes, we’re operational, though in a very different way. Other independent schools are also operational

Q2. If still working how have you had to adapt your business to keep working?

We have had to move the School online. This has meant clarifying what is at the core of our ‘business’. We have developed a ‘Remote Learning Plan’ which puts the strong sense of community of the School at the centre. It is essential for pupils to continue with their learning and we have redesigned the timetable to provide a blend of live sessions with teachers and independent study, when pupils can work at their own pace on resources provided for them.

Q3. What’s the biggest negative impact COVID-19 has had on your industry so far?

We have had to reduce fees significantly but have not been able to reduce our costs to match this. Our summer school looks very unlikely to be able to go ahead.

The financial impact on our parents has led to the circumstances of some being seriously changed for the worse.

Q4. Have you found any new business opportunities during COVID-19 for your industry or any positives that have come from this situation?

The new opportunities are probably ones for the future, but what has been extremely positive is the fact that staff and pupils have, through necessity, learnt new skills and methods of interacting, which would have taken a very long time and considerable energy under normal circumstances. COVID-19 has proved an extraordinary agent for the acceptance of change.

The fact that pupils and teachers are becoming proficient at ‘remote learning’ opens up opportunities in the future for managing difficulties with timetable clashes and may make it possible to offer ‘minority’ subjects eg classical languages to pupils from other schools (state schools where they are not available). It will give us greater flexibility as we become comfortable with this style of learning and confident that it is effective.

Q5. How are you supporting your clients out of the ordinary during COVID-19?

More regular communication.
Financial support where there is a need.
Provision to be at school for the children of key workers.

Q6. What’s the most important thing that COVID-19 has taught you so far in your industry?

It has given even sharper clarity as to our ‘Why?’ Our pupils have enjoyed being reconnected and re-engaged with the community. The learning comes from that. It is a powerful reminder that our purpose is not to ‘deliver’ education but to build relationships and nurture an understanding that every person is unconditionally valued. Whilst we are having to use very different methods, our core purpose is unchanged.

Q7. Would you say that currently during COVID-19 your industry is on a decline, plateau or incline and what makes you think this?

I think that for some independent schools this will have a catastrophic impact. There will be some ‘winners’ and some ‘losers’. I think it will very much depend on the way in which schools react to the challenge/threat. It will indicate the level of trust which exists between schools and the parents and whether they view it as a partnership or a transaction.

Q8. If anything, what more do you think the government can do to support your industry?

Make bank loans more available so as to ensure schools which are viable are not tripped up by cash flow.

Q9. If you are not already when do you think you will be back working from your office, will you have to adapt the way you work initially and if so how?

Some key staff are working in the school, distancing and following Public Health guidance. The majority of staff will remain at home unless the school site reopens. We will need to adapt our classrooms, meal arrangements etc. to ensure the virus is not spread.

Q10. When do you think it will be “business as usual” again for your industry and what makes you think this?

I envisage the School possibly being able to ‘open’ for some pupils during the month of June, but not as a boarding school and without international pupils. I think schools will be open again in September but not ‘business as usual’. We may not be able to have sports fixtures, concerts or ‘social gatherings’ etc. I feel the risk of a second spike in levels of infection is a risk which the government will be unwilling to take.

Q11. What do you miss most during lockdown?

Having our school community together in person.
The sound of children in the School.
But overall, I am personally enjoying the stimulation of having to think afresh about everything!

Q12. What’s the best tip you can give to others to help them cope with life in lockdown, both in business and personal life?

My advice to pupils was:

‘Whilst obviously I want you to spend time on your academic development and to keep up your studies through the remote lessons and work your teachers are providing, please don’t miss the opportunity to reflect on what is happening and its momentousness. Retaining normality is important and comforting, but let’s not pretend that what we are experiencing is normal!

I would venture that none of us would have chosen to be in our current situation but now that we are, let’s make sure we learn the lessons it is so clearly offering us. These are not remote or in any way virtual, they are very real and immediate! ‘

This is a perfect opportunity to reconnect with our core purpose as a business and personally. A practical suggestion to help this process would be to read (every day).

Thank you to Andrew Hobbs from Downside School for taking part in this survey. If you would like to give insights into your industry during COVID-19 to help other businesses please get in touch.