Big Interview: The catering private school league

Big Interview: The catering private school league

The quality of school catering is rising further up the agenda as more private schools battle to differentiate themselves

Interview by Jane Renton

Private schools in Britain used to proudly present their new swimming pool or new theatre block to prospective parents. But such facilities are now regarded as the starting point in the war for pupils. Those pupils increasingly come from the ranks of the global elite, and their parents expect the finest things in life to be laid on. As a result, there has been something of an ‘arms race’; Saatchi-esque type galleries displaying pupils’ artwork, sophisticated indoor riding school arenas, and shooting ranges. Music blocks with recording studios have replaced dusty, chalk-infested classrooms. It is not so much Goodbye Mr Chips, but hello country club with school attached.

More recently the arms race has extended to the catering department, a trend that has been underway for much of the past decade, but is now accelerating. Many of the best state schools have also raised their food offerings, thus placing greater pressure on private schools to improve their respective offerings.

The race for excellence has also increasingly involved a greater degree of outsourcing. Holroyd Howe is one of the major players in this sector and has been successful in acquiring new contracts from schools that traditionally handled their own catering, such as Eastbourne College and Bromsgrove School.

There are basically three reasons behind this trend. It’s about reputation and being seen to provide the very best possible food; it’s also being driven by the growth in international pupils; and it is also about risk management, particularly in relation to issues such as food allergens and compliance with food regulations.

“Food allergens, which are growing among British children, are things that many schools find increasingly burdensome and difficult to deal with on their own,” explains Ronan Harte, chief executive of Holroyd Howe, the third largest contract caterer in the sector.

Those three reasons together explain why at least 50% of all Holroyd Howe’s new business wins last year came from independent schools that previously self-catered.

Many school heads and bursars, having sought to raise academic standards and school facilities to the highest levels are now turning their attention to the food they offer. It is the last bastion in their pursuit of excellence.

“I think there is renewed focus and emphasis on quality in terms of food,” acknowledges Claire Long, Holroyd Howe’s regional managing director. “Some schools have lagged behind in this area and are now recognising the need to raise their game.”

Despite years of speculation over the affordability of the sector, where school fees have trebled in real terms since 1980, pupil numbers continue to increase. According to the latest census by the Independent Schools Council (ISC), there are now 522, 879 pupils in its member schools – the highest number since records began in 1974. Overseas pupils make up a small but significant minority of 27,281 in ISC schools, with the biggest grouping of 6,000 plus pupils coming from China. Many of the top British public schools have established overseas offshoots, collectively currently educating close on 32,000 pupils abroad, with schools such as Wellington College, Harrow, and Dulwich College establishing satellite franchises in China.

As the number of overseas pupils have risen, so too has the number of predominantly middle class children who receive some level of financial help, which has now risen to about 33% of the total intake of private school pupils.

Private schools are also an undeniably attractive business proposition for contract caterers. There is not just breakfast, lunch and supper to be catered for, but also event, conference and language school business that also require catering during school holidays. With catering invariably forming the second highest expense for private schools after teaching staff costs, independent schools are constantly seeking to maximise the potential of their facilities to generate commercial enterprise opportunities out of term time.

“We know that some schools are doing about 15 or 16 weddings a year as many of them are based in fantastically beautiful stately houses, with spectacular grounds and often a stunning chapel or even an abbey within the school grounds,” adds Ronan.

But the private school market is not an easy one in which to gain access. Only half the sector has so far outsourced, which means there is still considerable scope for new business. Yet the sector continues to be dominated by a handful of contract caterers. Up there with the leaders is Holroyd Howe, which has been successfully grown its market share over the past five years and currently has an annual turnover of £75m.

“It is a very loyal, tight-knit market, and one built on trust and integrity. If you do anything to damage that trust the word would get around very quickly,” says Ronan.

Caterers also have to work harder to help schools market themselves to prospective parents. This involves greater participation in school open days than might have been the case in the past. Caterers and the quality of their offering are increasingly influential in helping sell a school to prospective buyers of private education.

“We are increasingly at the forefront of open day events and the dining room and café are forming a big part of the school tour for prospective parents and pupils,” says Claire.

While attractive facilities and good food are undeniably important, caterers are increasingly expected to play a greater role in the development of health and nutrition education for school pupils.

“We have invested very heavily in our food and nutrition team. Our approach has been to educate children about food and healthy nutrition at each stage of their development from the age of four onwards,” says Ronan.

Those activities often involve Holroyd Howe’s director of food and nutrition, Amy Roberts, holding sessions that emphasise the importance of health and nutrition in a way that supports the curriculum of its various schools. They might involve interactive presentations to pupils promoting the importance of a balanced diet in preference to the latest food fads. There could be a focus on fuelling the brain for optimal academic study or conversely for high performance in sport. It could also involve teaching pupils to cook various healthy, easily-prepared meals in readiness for the time when they leave school to go to university.

“Our food and nutrition service is one of our most in-demand services,” says Ronan.

Caterers also are increasingly expected by heads and bursars to help provide the type of differentiated food offering that might help retain existing pupils as they approach their last two years of senior education.

“It helps retain pupils who otherwise might get restless and opt for a change of school for their A level years. It also relieves pressure on dining halls that might have been built in earlier years when pupil numbers were considerably lower,” says Claire.

The type of food offering expected is not so different now from a top city business and industry site, typically run by Holroyd Howe’s sister company, BaxterStorey might provide.

“I think many people would be completely taken aback by the high level of food and presentation we offer in our schools. It is right up there with the best of B&I,” says Ronan.

That is also reflected in some of the trends you see in the more fashionable restaurants.

“We’re seeing a trend for contemporary, stylish dining facilities and open kitchens in schools, the sort you would expect to find in a high end restaurant. There is much greater emphasis on design and a complete move away from the traditional industrial style canteens – they are disappearing,” adds Claire.

One of Holroyd Howe’s newer contracts is with Cheltenham College, which with its arresting 175-year neo-classical building typifies what most people imagine a traditional British public school to look like. The school recently embarked on a significant investment programme to redevelop the catering facilities. While its traditional and beautiful dining hall remains with its long wooden trestle tables and benches, it has been enhanced by a stunning new food court and cool cafe.

The project also included the creation of a state-of-the-art kitchen. It also demonstrates the importance the College places on not only providing great food but also driving quality and excellence across all aspects of its operation.

As in many of Holroyd Howe’s boarding schools, there has also been a greater emphasis on elevating the importance of the evening meal.

“We might be serving smaller numbers at supper but we are placing increasing emphasis on creating a different atmosphere and getting the lighting and ambience right,” explains Claire. “We might provide sharing platters, run themed events and street food concepts or adapt something from the high street for special treat nights to make supper fun.”

It could be something similar to what pupils might enjoy at Nando’s or Wagamama were they to be eating out with parents or friends at the weekend or during the holidays.

Dedicated coffee shops or cafés have also been a marked feature of the private school market, providing drinks, light meals and snacks for pupils, teachers and parents. This has been a big feature of Holroyd Howe’s provision at Bromsgrove, with its Café 1553, which opened in 2012.

“It creates real opportunities to generate third party revenues. The café at Bromsgrove is very public facing and commercial,” says Ronan.

It encourages parents to visit children at schools more regularly for match days and other events. It allows schools to demonstrate just how good their catering facilities really are in a way that enhances reputation. The arms race in catering excellence is well underway.