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Covid-19 crisis tests independent schools

Covid-19 has forced most independent schools to close their doors and make radical changes to their teaching and pastoral care. How are schools and parents responding to the emergency measures?

  • Efficient online learning platforms, chatrooms and videoconferencing, plus students with a reliable internet connection, have provided crucial continuity of education
  • Schools are taking a financial hit, with pressure to offer reduced fees, as well as lucrative revision courses and summer programmes now cancelled
  • Some establishments may be eligible for the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, and future changes might include mergers and acquisitions

This year was never going to be an easy one for Britain’s fee-paying schools. A huge rise in employers’ contributions to teachers’ pensions, soon to be followed by the loss of business rates relief for schools with charitable status in Scotland, had left many financially bruised.

Other pressures hovering in the background are the starting salaries for new teachers, which are set to rise to £30,000 by 2022-23, as well as the end to an exemption for many employees provided with living accommodation. From April 2021, the ‘representative employee’ concession will be withdrawn, resulting in additional tax liabilities.

But no one in education expected 2020 to bring the challenges we’re now seeing, as independent schools join the rest of the world in tackling Covid-19. The premium facilities parents pay thousands for – pools and playing fields, science labs and music studios – lie empty as classroom teaching is replaced by distance learning. Academic results will be decided by teachers’ predictions, not teenagers’ exam performance.

From the chalkface to the chatroom

Schools’ most urgent response to the coronavirus closures was to ensure continuity of education.

“Most schools swung into action efficiently and with amazing speed,” says Melanie Sanderson, managing editor of The Good Schools Guide. “Many top schools were ahead of the game, with online learning platforms and IT equipment in place and teachers trained to use them. Some are now sharing these platforms with the state sector.” Eton is one such example.

A Teacher Tapp survey revealed that, during the quarantine period, independent schools staff are far more likely to be using online learning platforms, videoconferencing and chatrooms to teach students than their state school counterparts, and less likely to be relying on textbooks and worksheets. Access to devices and a reliable internet connection is rarely a problem for pupils whose parents can afford to pay for their education.

With teaching transferred to Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and the like, independent schools are now addressing the pastoral aspects of school life. “We’re seeing schools planning online games lessons, assemblies, extracurricular clubs and peer meet-ups,” says Sanderson.

Private schools, public good

Independent schools also responded swiftly and generously to the national effort to fight coronavirus. The Boarding Schools’ Association members have offered over 9,000 beds to NHS staff, homeless people and others in need. The association’s #BSAheroes social media hashtag shows schools’ 3D printers churning out face masks for healthcare workers, science departments donating goggles and gloves to hospitals, and staff volunteering to run holiday clubs for essential workers’ children.

“I’ve been bowled over by the number of schools, teachers, parents and pupils who have jumped into action, determined to play their part in the fightback against coronavirus,” says Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council.

A budgetary balancing act

Behind these benevolent gestures, schools’ finance committees and governing boards are making difficult decisions – while learning how to operate remotely. The day after the government closed schools, a Telegraph headline asked: “Why am I still paying full whack for my children’s private school when it’s now shut?” It’s a question schools must answer with realism and sensitivity.

“All schools are looking at emergency budgets for next term’s costs,” explains David Emanuel, partner at education law solicitors VWV and governor of an independent school. “Schools expect to take painful losses. It’s difficult to make meaningful savings that can be passed on to parents. The schools able to reduce fees will take a financial hit.”

Schools may be able to furlough some maintenance and catering staff, and maybe music or sports teachers, but for most, furloughing is not something they can use to make big cost savings

David Emanuel, partner, VWV

Unlike many businesses, schools can’t mothball facilities and put staff into the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (whereby their employer claims 80% of their wage from the government while they are not working – or furloughing). School staff delivering home learning, assessing exam grades or doing admin can’t be furloughed. Nor can those working with students still on site, such as boarders unable to return to families abroad and children of essential workers.

“Schools may be able to furlough some maintenance and catering staff, and maybe music or sports teachers, but for most, furloughing is not something they can use to make big cost savings,” says Emanuel.

Meanwhile, non-fee income has dried up. Lucrative revision courses, summer schools and venue-hire arrangements are cancelled. How well schools can weather the financial storm – and how much they can reduce fees – depends on their financial situation. “Independent schools tend to be not-for-profit; around half are charities,” explains Robinson. “Most do not have large reserves to fall back on.”

Fair fees?

Recognising the financial difficulties felt by families during the coronavirus lockdown, several top schools, including Eton College and Marlborough College, have cut fees by a third for the summer term. The Alpha Plus Group of 20 independent schools initially asked families to pay full fees but had to U-turn after a backlash from parents, who will now get a 20% discount.

“There’s huge variation in schools’ responses,” says Sanderson. “Some are offering no discount, but in the boarding sector it’s typically 25% to 35% and day schools around 10% to 20%. A lot of prep schools are giving heavier discounts to the younger years – for nurseries we’re seeing up to 100% because of the parental support needed when children are at home.

“Students in exam years have no curriculum or syllabus for this term, when they would have been sitting GCSEs or A levels. Schools should be giving them alternative education of exceptional value or generous rebates.

“We’re calling for schools to be transparent with families about how they arrive at discounted fees,” Sanderson continues. “This is a difficult time for many parents. They may be taking a pay cut or losing their business. Many are worried about relatives or their own health.”

Families suffering the worst impacts may struggle to afford even discounted fees. Those parents should be informed about the possibility of delayed or staged payments and whether their children are eligible for a school’s hardship fund or bursaries.

Coronavirus cash flow

If the crisis puts the school in financial difficulty, independent schools are eligible for the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme. “And our clients tell us their banks are being supportive,” says Emanuel.

He sees some schools making far-reaching changes to remain secure. “For years we’ve seen consolidation within the independent schools market as affordability becomes increasingly challenging for parents,” he explains. “We’ve seen mergers between prep and senior schools, forming groups of schools to create economies of scale. The financial shock of Covid-19 will accelerate that. Mergers between senior schools will come up the agenda too, as will acquisitions by investors and existing schools groups.”

“Schools need to help parents understand the pressures they’re facing and acknowledge the pressures families are facing, maintaining a supportive two-way relationship,” says Emanuel. “Good communication is key.”

An uncertain future

How long the closures last remains to be seen and for most schools this is the biggest challenge. “No one knows when schools will open again and that makes planning terribly difficult,” says Robinson.

“Provided this closure is for one term only, I think most schools feel they can get through it,” says Emanuel. “If schools are still shut in September, it’ll be more of a struggle.”

For more information and support, visit the Independent Schools Council  The  Good Schools Guide VWV  and the government’s  financial support for businesses .

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