ISC commentary: Coronavirus and school fees

Julie Robinson, chief executive of the ISC, comments on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on school fees and operations.

Independent schools across the world have been wrestling with the issue of what school fees to charge for the summer term. These fees were set over a year ago but sudden changes to operations caused by the pandemic have thrown normality to the wind and we are all in the process of adapting to a new world in the short and medium term. As the impact is felt around the globe and online working is imposed at short notice, we are only now becoming aware of the full extent of the implications to our daily lives, businesses and schools.

Independent schools tend to be not-for-profits, around half are charities and they are run by vocational teachers (many of whom are parents and deeply understand the pressures on all families at the moment). As a governor of two schools myself, I know that we are trying to do the right thing for the families who invest in our schools: schools are doing all they can to continue teaching and learning remotely and that means continuation of their costliest resource, the teaching staff team, who have been called upon to work intensely hard in unprecedented circumstances – setting up online learning and continuing pastoral support.

We know that schools have been examining their costs for savings. Schools I have spoken to are anxious about the future when so much remains uncertain: when will school open again? No one knows the answer and that makes planning ahead terribly difficult. 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. Many schools are in the process of arranging virtual governors’ meetings and emergency finance committee meetings to explore ways in which they can mitigate the financial risks of this crisis.

Since schools exist to support and educate children, they dread the prospect of suspending all operations and furloughing all but a few administrative staff. Objectively though, that would be the most effective way to cut costs.

In order to continue online education and have staff ready to pick up as soon as normal life returns -whenever that may be – many schools are keeping term and holiday dates under review, prioritising ongoing online education and having staff ready as soon as normality resumes. We await further details of examination arrangements and teachers of Years 13 and 11 will be required to ensure that teacher assessments and support for grade appeals can be completed as smoothly as possible. Furloughed staff are not permitted to work and so teachers need to be kept on for this.

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). The schools we have spoken to expect to take losses, painful ones.

The annual fee has to cover monthly outgoings. Fees are charged at three points across the year but cash flow does not match outgoings. Schools are committed to costs on a monthly rather than a termly basis and it is difficult to make meaningful savings that can be passed on to parents. The schools able to reduce fees will be taking a significant financial hit. Communications with parents seek to demonstrate empathy and sensitivity to the position in which fee-payers find themselves: children at home and in many cases pressures on their own livelihoods. We are all under pressure, and emotions can run high – but I have seen some reassuring and sympathetic letters from heads explaining the difficulties facing schools. I’ve also seen understanding communications from parents who appreciate the tensions at play.

Some schools are already announcing they will freeze fees for September. The long term effects on schools will not be evident until much later. Governors, trustees and proprietors take their responsibilities very seriously as custodians of schools and want them to continue to be a valued community resource. 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 – so many people are adversely affected. School leaders, teachers and governors are meeting to discuss all of the issues at play, confident that with time and patience, we will get through this together.

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