Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Independent School Mergers: Winning Hearts and Minds

When a small, free-standing prep school merges with a much larger school or Group, the greatest challenge is winning over the “hearts and minds” of the key interest groups:
The Governors of a small, free-standing prep school (or indeed the owners in the case of a proprietorial school) are in all likelihood all too aware of their predicament. Governors often feel the weight of history. They are bound by the tradition that they received, and have a duty, within what is possible, to ensure that the school is passed on to their successors in good shape. Inevitably some will see merger as a failure on their part; others will take the pragmatic view that it is the only way to see the school move forward. The danger here is that all too often they can hesitate and not seize the moment before them.
The Governors of the Group or larger school have a different agenda. They will need to be satisfied that the expansion of the Group will not impact on the “core” operation. Their concerns are likely to be in terms of whether or not the “satellite school” will be a short or long-term financial burden, and if it is going to prove too much of a distraction for key members of the senior management and support teams. However, the most fundamental question of the Governors of the larger school is, “Do the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term effort?”
Because a merger is only a change in Governance, outwardly it impacts most on those whose roles bring them closest to Governors. The Headteacher, the Bursar and the senior team will be most affected by the changes and potentially the most anxious. That said all staff will be anxious about their jobs and career development and all will need reassurance.
Parents view schools through the filter of their child. A parent’s first reaction to the news of a merger is to ask, “How is this going to affect my child?” and then, “How is it going to affect me?” Parents want incredibly detailed information, “Will the school uniform or sports kit change?” “Will the fees go up?” “Will drop-off times and location change?” “Will my child’s teacher change?” “Will the Headteacher change?” and so on. It is vital that the schools know and communicate the answers to all of these questions at the earliest possible stage. The most problematic mergers are ones that involve restructure, for this means change. Even, when there is no change, getting parents on board is incredibly time-consuming, but it is vital.

The key to winning the hearts and minds of key groups is developing trust and good communication. The role of the Headteacher of the prep school is fundamental here. The Headteacher is the person who was entrusted to run the school by the Governors, he is the leader of the staff and the face of the school who is trusted by parents and staff alike.

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