Private schools in the UK are facing a battle for survival in the face of the coronavirus crisis as parents who have lost their income cancel direct debits and overseas pupils who have gone home decide whether to return.
As the economic fallout from the pandemic begins to bite, there are fears that a number of smaller independent schools, which are already struggling, will be driven out of business.
Many are offering fee discounts of anything from 10% right up to 50% for the summer term to take into account the fact that schools have closed and are only able to offer an online education.
Others are offering rebates for meals, transport and extra curricular activities.
Looking ahead to the autumn, schools are promising a fee freeze for the next academic year, with increased bursaries and hardship funds for families hit by the economic downturn, in order to try to keep places full and parents on board.
Neil Roskilly, the chief executive of the Independent Schools Association which represents 540 private schools in the UK, warned that not all schools would survive. “Five or six close every year or amalgamate, and that’s just in normal times. We could be looking at maybe double that. We simply don’t know,” he said.
“A lot of it will depend on where the world’s economy is going, and whether people have got the jobs they once had.”
There is also uncertainty about overseas pupils, most of whom have now gone home though a number remain stranded in the UK, being cared for by their schools. According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), there are around 55,000 overseas pupils in ISC schools, of which almost 10,000 are Chinese, 5,000 are from Hong Kong and 2,500 from Russia.
“We don’t know how many of the children want to come back, and even if they do want to come back, whether they will be able to leave their country, or whether their country is still going to be in lockdown,” saids Roskilly.
“The vast majority are saying they want to come back if they can. They just don’t know what the situation’s going to be. What schools are doing is hoping for the best but planning for the worst.”
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Eton College, which educated the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has reduced its fees by a third for the summer term. “We have invited parents to contribute the balance to support our various community initiatives if they are able to and would like to, and (very) many have,” a spokesperson said. “We have also increased our financial aid fund, and many parents have donated to this.”
Matthew Adshead is headmaster of the Old Vicarage School, an independent nursery, pre-prep and preparatory school for around 160 girls and boys aged three to 13 in Darley Abbey, Derby.
“We are going to need to be able to adapt and look after our parent body. They are going through the same pressures we are,” said Adshead, who is offering a 15% fee discount for those parents who need it, plus a freeze on fees for September.”
He said he had already lost about five pupils as a result of the crisis. “I think we will see some schools closing, I’m sad to say – some are teetering already. In a small independent school, the large majority of parents have got their own businesses.
“What we are going to see is significant strain and pressure on cash flow. The first thing that’s going to have to go is fees, because they are going to need that money to live on.”
Francis Green, professor of work and education economics at UCL Institute of Education, said private schools were facing “a triple whammy” – the direct effects of the virus, the economic effects as their parents run into financial problems and the increased costs of teachers’ pensions, which has been causing the sector difficulties for some time.
“The last time fee increases were held at or below inflation was in the immediate aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis; this being much more severe I would expect to see fee reductions, and retrenchment in the schools. Maybe even redundancies.”
Green continued: “Private schools have quite a few foreign students, who pay slightly higher fees and in some cases are very important for the schools’ financial survival.
“Assuming business is able to be resumed at some level in the autumn, one can’t help thinking that global demand for British education will have taken a knock if Britain is seen to be way behind the curve in dealing with the virus – particularly in comparison with China.”
In the event of schools being threatened with closure, Green said the Department for Education should allow them to convert to academy status, and become part of the state school system, as a small number have already done.
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