Covid-19: confusion over private school fees and lockdown closures

Parents with children in private schools are increasingly concerned about whether fees are going to be cut as schools remain closed under the lockdown rules, which have been extended for a further three weeks until Thursday 7 May, reports Philip Smith 

As bills for school fees start to land on the doormats of parents who have chosen the private education route for their children, there are growing concerns about whether bills will be discounted to reflect covid-19 enforced closures with many hoping to see a discount on their bills, as well as reassurance that the schools are still up and running

Independent schools are governed by the same lockdown rules as the state sector – when the call came to close schools on Friday 20 March in England, Scotland and Wales, this applied equally to the private sector.

According to the website best-schools.co.uk, day prep fees can range from £10,000 to £20,000 or more in London and day fees for senior schools can range from £12,000 to £25,000 per annum. The average senior boarding fees are around £35,000 pa but some senior boarding schools are now exceeding £45,000 a year.

Independent schools traditionally have shorter terms than in the state sector, so parents effectively only lost out on a week’s worth of education ahead of the Easter break. But now they are facing the prospect of no immediate return to school.

However, most independent schools have been able to provide online facilities and virtual classrooms and have been, where possible, adhering to the school timetable. Some will be adjusting the work patterns of their teaching staff to allow for the time differences of overseas pupils that returned home once the schools closed.

Many of these schools were not able to simply close the school gates on that Friday. Many pupils are boarders, a significant number of which will be from overseas. For instance, there are some 8,000 Chinese pupils boarding in private schools in the UK, with a further 5,000 from Hong Kong. Schools were faced with the immediate need to look after these pupils until safe travel arrangements could be made for them to return home. In due course, these pupils will need to come back to the UK if they are to continue their education here, raising concerns over whether the coronavirus has been sufficiently contained to allow for safe travel and the lifting of travel bans.

But back home, the schools will have a number of fixed costs that still need to be addressed and paid for. Independent schools tend to be not-for-profits, around half are charities. As such, many will be able to take advantage of the various government-backed schemes that will address short-term financing needs. Non-teaching staff who are not required to produce lessons for the pupils can be furloughed, and schools are taking advantage of this facility, which will allow jobs to be retained – these would include grounds and maintenance staff, pastoral care employees and some administrative employees.

But a number of administrative staff such as bursers will be working longer hours as they address school finances. They need to keep the schools running, but also are aware that parents may either not be willing to pay for a service they are not receiving, or indeed might not be able to afford the fees at all.

Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, which represents 1,300 private schools in the UK, says: ‘Most schools do not have large reserves to fall back on. Some schools had sent fees invoices before the government restricted citizens’ movements. Some schools have not yet invoiced parents and are loathe to add to the financial strain on fee-paying families, the majority of whom are dual income couples with their own financial pressures to consider.’

Which leads on to the vexed question of how much of a discount parents can expect to see, if any, if their bills for the summer term. School meals are often billed separately, and there has been the recognition that as these are not currently being provided, then they can be deducted from the invoice. Thereafter, it is down to the discretion of individual schools.

One private school in south east London is offering a 10% reduction of fees, while another in Gloucestershire has reduced its fees by a third. Much will depend on how much education the schools are able to provide remotely, and how easy it is to access. There is the assumption that most privately educated pupils would have access to the appropriate levels of technology, but if they are working from home alongside their parents, then this will place a strain on internet connections.

‘Schools know there will be late and non-payment of fees to a certain extent against some reduced costs in catering and travel, although several schools have already deployed minibuses to support medical and food bank operations,’ Robinson says. ‘The schools we have spoken to expect to take losses, painful ones.

‘Some schools are already announcing they will freeze fees for September. The long-term effects on schools will not be evident until much later. Schools absolutely understand why parents are asking questions about fees, and the difficulty we are all experiencing adjusting to the current situation, balancing work, online education and wellbeing.’

By Philip Smith

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