Sector trends

Boarding schools ride out the Covid crisis

Quarantine rules and online teaching have taken some working around, particularly with overseas students, but UK boarding schools are passing the Covid test.

The challenges of the Covid crisis

After grappling with closed borders, social distancing and the rush to online teaching, boarding schools are coming to terms with the complexities of running their own quarantine systems while offering ‘hybrid’ in-person and online classes. These are spread between the classroom, students’ own homes and quarantine accommodation on school grounds.

Despite those challenges, headteachers and industry leaders say it is clear the pandemic has not turned into the disaster for boarding schools that many feared early in 2020.

There have been few school closures: the UK’s initially poor management of Covid improved as the vaccination programme kicked in, with some leading schools even seeing an increase in applications amid a flight to quality and dissatisfaction with the Covid response of many state schools.

“These are challenging times, but we’re confident the sector remains robust,” says Robin Fletcher, chief executive of the Boarding Schools’ Association, which represents 600 schools across the UK.

That resilience was built on the success of boarding schools and many other private schools in reassuring parents about their safety regimes and rolling out online lessons.

“When the coronavirus pandemic first caused restrictions to be imposed in UK boarding schools the sector was swift to respond, putting the best possible online learning provisions in place, allowing students to continue learning,” Fletcher says.

Online provision has been robust

International students make up about 29,000 of the 79,000 boarders in the UK and Fletcher says their numbers have not fallen during the pandemic “but some are still working online in their own countries and won’t return until September”.

Christopher King, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, says the main reason private schools have been able to retain students was that “the online provision stood up to interrogation and proved remarkably robust”.

“There is truth in the line that schools travelled further and became more sophisticated in technology in two weeks at the beginning of the lockdown than they had in the previous two years,” he says.

“In the early days there was concern numbers would fall, given our government’s faltering start in managing the pandemic. The message sent out worldwide was that we didn’t necessarily have a grip on things but, with time, the success of the vaccination programme helped our image.”

In any business it’s wise to diversify, and the boarding schools that have taken the most significant knock have tended to be those that prioritised one geographical area, and of course the prime one was mainland China

Christopher King
Chief executive, Independent Association of Prep Schools

Potential rivals in other English-speaking countries failed to grasp the opportunity offered by the UK’s poor early performance. The US and Canada are not seen to have handled the virus well either, and the greater success of Australia and New Zealand was largely based on closing borders to students and others from abroad.

“Boarding numbers in the UK from mainland China will be down but a range of factors comes into play there,” King says. Students from Hong Kong could hold up well enough to make up for some of the Chinese loss.

The worst predictions have not been borne out

In terms of the financial impact of Covid, King said the picture is nuanced. Before the pandemic, private schools could be divided into three groups: those that were doing very well; “a large middle ground that had its ups and downs but basically was doing fine”; and a third group that was already struggling.

“Financially, all three groups are worse off than they were before. Those that were struggling have lost any financial buffer they had, but the dire predictions of significant numbers of schools closing have not occurred,” he says.

“Schools in the middle group are talking about delaying major capital projects but actually they are OK. In some cases, the most successful have enjoyed even greater success because you get a flight to quality in tough times.”

Many schools have upped their marketing activity to attract students from a wider range of countries, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, King adds.

“In any business it’s wise to diversify, and the boarding schools that have taken the most significant knock have tended to be those that prioritised one geographical area, and of course the prime one was mainland China.”

Kevin Samson, co-principal of Buckswood, a private school outside Hastings in East Sussex, says he has done online presentations through student recruitment agencies in Colombia, Brazil and the Nordic nations. His school’s boarding population had fallen from about 200 to 170, largely due to a loss of Chinese students and travel restrictions in South America.

“There is more demand in the pipeline for September, but after the closures [earlier in the year] we had some students who delayed by a year to see what happens.

“We were able to cut fees during the first lockdown but not [in subsequent lockdowns], because our fixed costs remain and our staffing has remained largely unchanged. We’ve still got to deliver lessons so it’s not as though we can furlough most of our staff and run a skeleton team. Certain areas you can’t cut,” he says. “We’re hopeful of a resurgence in enrolments for September because there are lots of families with kids at home, learning online in different time zones, who really want them back at school.”

Layers of complexity

The UK government’s decision to allow the estimated 3,000 boarding students who came from countries on its red list to enter the country and serve 14-day quarantines at their schools imposed an extra layer of complexity on top of existing quarantine requirements, he explains. “We had to organise testing and social distancing as well as running a school, and parents were not expecting to pay extra for that.

“We were also running online lessons for kids isolating in their boarding houses, so a teacher has maybe 10 children in front of them, including two in China, one in South America and three isolating in their boarding house. How on earth do you run a lesson that is engaging to all of them?”

Ian Read, director of marketing and communication at Benenden School, an independent girls’ boarding school in Kent, says about 15% of its 550 students were from overseas and it has taken a major effort to keep them informed about the pandemic. It plans to retain many of the online parents’ meetings and presentations that proved so successful during the pandemic.

The school cut its fees by 25% for the summer 2020 term, when boarding was impossible, and by 20% for the spring term 2021 until it was able to reopen in early March.

“We quickly found ourselves becoming almost a communications operation for the overseas parents to reassure them that even while cases were really high in the UK, being here in school was a safe place to be,” says Read.

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