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Sustainability: n. the capacity to endure

| March 8, 2012 | 0 Comments

By John Lobban and Lindsay Mccay

During Foresight 2012, a forum hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg in November 2011, panellists concurred that tough economic times lay ahead for the developed countries of Europe and as far north as Japan.

South Africa is, however, now aligned with the BRIC bloc1 and faces more attractive economic prospects, said panellists, as long as it can manage the lean years with “discipline, focus and commitment”. In an immediate future where our country’s economic growth rate is predicted to be around 3%, we cannot, however, afford to be complacent. What is going to count is the calibre of leadership in both the country and its organisations.

A range of Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) member surveys conducted in 2011 revealed that in the face of unstable national and global financial climates, one of the most compelling challenges facing independent schools today is financing the school. ISASA has responded by declaring ‘facilitating school sustainability’ one of its six strategic imperatives for the next three years. This means the organisation will support member schools proactively in their quest to reach financial equilibrium.

Schools share same pressing issues

ISASA’s research findings are clear: many schools share the same pressing issues relative to financing – increasing debt, teacher recruitment pressures, teacher retention and reward, new legislation adding to the cost of compliance, changing demographics, the ever-present need to implement new technologies, maintaining curriculum excellence, improving diversity and managing facilities. Funding these endeavours, whilst at the same time seeking to maintain affordability and market viability, is particularly complex.

These findings are discussed in ‘The Myth of Sustainability’, by Mark Cosworth, Business Manager at Nudgee College in Brisbane, Australia. Cosworth writes that there are “four key facets of sustainability:2

1. Sustainability theory is derived from economic models
which focus on how we make choices about the allocation
of scarce resources.

2. Sustainability is about understanding, measuring and
identifying how instituting sustainable actions in one area of
an organisation can positively impact other apparently
unrelated aspects of the organisation and its environmental,
financial, human and social performance.

3. Sustainability is a journey which requires a fundamental and
ongoing commitment to change in the decision-making
processes used by management and staff.

4. Sustainability is scalable – the principles of sustainability are
equally applicable to individuals and entire schools as they
are to national economies and the global environment.”

Cosworth’s principles provide a way to reassess school sustainability, which ISASA has done in support of its member schools, as we shall now outline.

Adapting to changing circumstances

The old dictum ‘business as usual’ does not accurately describe the current climate. Traditional strategic planning is therefore unlikely to produce a solution to long-term school sustainability, because it seldom sufficiently challenges old assumptions and paradigms. School governing bodies and management teams need new knowledge, skills and resources and sometimes revolutionary approaches to ensure their schools’ sustainability.

The new ISASA School Sustainability workshop is designed to bring a group of the key players in schools together to identify three- to five-year trends, re-examine assumptions and ‘dashboard indicators’3 and chart a new sustainable strategic direction. This workshop has been tried and tested by the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) in the United States (US) and adapted by an ISASA task team, which included representatives from the South African Bursars of Independent Schools Association (SABISA), the South African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) and the NBOA, for use in our member schools in a South African context.

Workshop process predicated on data-driven decisionmaking

The workshop is only as successful as each school makes it. Groups comprising senior management teams and governing body representatives (i.e. Governors, Head/s, Business Managers or Bursar/s, teachers, marketer/s and fundraiser/s) are given crucial preparation work to do prior to the workshop and must use the school-specific data they have collected – including figures regarding budget, cash flow, expenditure, debt and savings; and statistics about admission (applications to the school as well as actual acceptances and enrolments), tuition fees and staffing (including salaries, attrition and turnover) – to make data-driven rather than subjective decisions throughout the process.

Feedback on the workshop experience has been extremely encouraging, with schools commenting on both the process and the content positively. The group-based methodology has enjoyed particular support from delegates, some saying that it “gave the school executive team and board members a healthy chunk of time – a luxury not often enjoyed – to really have indepth discussions”.

Using data – or “have you passed your price ceiling?”

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in the US maintains comprehensive data sets for use by its member schools, and ISASA relied heavily on NAIS’s advice and assistance to begin constructing its own sets that provide very useful benchmark statistics to workshop participants. Observes Sarah Daignault, ex-Director of the NBOA: “School boards don’t do a good job of talking about price strategically. Usually, to set fees, they look over the fence to see what their neighbours are charging. They can’t charge less as their parents will think they’re not as valuable, but if they charge more, they wouldn’t be competitive. So they charge the same amount – but is that strategic? Are all markets the same?” It’s critical for schools, advises Daignault, to conduct rigorous analysis of the trends within their own communities first, before comparing these with the benchmarks.

The data ISASA now collects and collates into benchmark statistics, encourages schools that participate in the workshop to assess drivers of market demand such as demographics, family income and economic wealth, pricing, competition and parent motivation. This leads schools to define what value for money means to them, which helps them to work out how to deliver the best outcomes by using their resources efficiently and effectively.

One Head summed up the workshop process by saying: “This was singularly the most informative workshop that I have attended in the last five years. So persuaded am I of the workshop’s relevance that I am happy to proclaim that attempting any kind of strategic planning exercise in a modern South African school without first being aware of the material presented in this workshop would for me, at any rate, make the exercise largely meaningless.”

Data-driven approach non-negotiable

With so many understandings of the term ‘sustainability’ today, one can see how the concept of school sustainability might be confusing to some, but to ISASA it is clear. A data-driven approach to sustainability and strategic planning with all the key personnel involved is a ‘non-negotiable’ if schools want to survive and thrive in the 21st century. They need to think strategically to ensure their long-term viability.

It is time for all schools to rethink their own capacity to endure.


1. The BRIC bloc of countries comprises Brazil, Russia, India and
China, which are all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced
economic development.

2. Cosgrove, M. ‘The Myth of Sustainability’, Associate, Association of
School Business Administrators in New South Wales (ASBA), 43 (2),
November 2011.

3. A dashboard indicator is information that gives an immediate
‘snapshot’ of the operational and financial health of a school – “things
that are right in front of one – as on the dashboard of a car – that one
uses to check whether all is well or not,” says McCay.

Category: Autumn 2012

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