For parents who have opted to send their children to independent schools, paying thousands of pounds not to send them back after the Easter holidays will be painful. But headteachers warn that without summer term fees, many schools may not be around to welcome pupils back when the crisis is over.
Across the country, senior management teams at independent schools are scrambling to strengthen the home-learning programmes devised at haste during the previous few weeks, to prove they are still delivering the superior education parents expect.
Many hope to add extra-curricular activities to the timetables already in place, even if these will fall far short of the activities on offer until last week.
"We were given our invoice on the last day of school and told to pay it within two weeks," says the mother of a girl, nine, and a boy, six, who is based in Midlands and sends both children to fee-paying day schools. "It was earlier than we’d normally receive it and usually it’s on email not in person.
"We’ve then been hounded every day about logging onto the online learning facility. But a lot of it is just videos grabbed from YouTube. They’ve said as a goodwill gesture they’re taking off the money for school meals! Which has left many parents furious. That’s a given." She reluctantly continues to pay.
“I don’t think any school could go without a term’s fees without that being catastrophic,” says Simon Head, headmaster of Chafyn Grove, an independent co-educational day and boarding prep school in Salisbury, Wiltshire. “If parents want a school in September, they should bear that in mind.”
Mr Head proposes to ask parents for the full £5,996 termly fee with the proviso that the school will offer a rebate once it has worked out how much money it can save by not employing catering staff or hiring coaches to transport pupils to sports fixtures. “It wouldn’t be a token amount.”
He is also considering offering “payment holidays or deferred payments” for those hit hardest by the economic collapse, while axing the boarding tariffs. “Nobody is profiteering. This is a genuinely difficult situation.”
Many schools are still considering their position, with several of the country’s best-known independent schools declining to comment, but others are moving fast to reassure frustrated - and anxious - parents.
Bill Mills, chairman of directors at the co-ed Highfield and Brookham schools in Liphook, Surrey, says it would be “completely inappropriate” to bill parents as normal. The schools’ website proudly states pupils here “flourish academically and become courageous learners”.
Says Mills: “Much of what we normally provide will be impossible.” Teachers are taking a 20 per cent temporary pay reduction from May, while other members of staff, such as the catering team, will be furloughed in line with the Chancellor’s recent announcement.
Mr Mills, whose family has been responsible for Highfield for the past 100 years, intends to charge 60 per cent of the summer term day fee, which stands at £7,325 per term for Year 8 pupils. He will ask families least affected by the economic fallout to pay full fees, diverting the difference into a special hardship fund to help those in need.
Headteachers will beg parents considering withholding fees to bear in mind that independent schools are suffering along with the rest of the economy.
“We are desperate to be fair to our clients, but they need to be fair to us in return and recognise that if our business is to survive, those in receipt of services, need to contribute,” says Pam Hutley, headmistress of Hollygirt, an independent co-ed school in Nottingham where day fees are between £3,200 and £4,200 per term.
“We will make any savings we can, such as not having all our buildings open but we are not a rich, posh school. We do not have rich, posh parents,” she adds.
Many parents appreciate the tricky balance. “I’m fully expecting to be charged for summer,” says one parent with a child at a fee-paying secondary in London.
“Schools have watertight contracts and ours always require a full term’s notice of leaving, even at end of year 11. They have to pay staff and are still providing a full day’s lessons so it is in some ways justified.” She is hoping to recoup the termly cost of the coach to school, which is an additional £500.
Like office workers, many teachers will spend the summer term working from home, setting lessons, marking homework and battling with IT issues.
“Staff are working really hard and imaginatively to produce work for the children to do,” says one parent-governor at a north London girls’ prep school. “It’s not like homework or the odd child being away, it’s proper curriculum work. And we need to pay them and keep the whole show on the road.”
For those anxious their children will miss out on the pastoral side of independent school life - along with the playing fields, art studios and swimming pools - Emma Pattison, head of £5,763-a-term Croydon High School, a Girls Day School Trust (GDST) school for pupils aged 3 to 18, says the extra support they can provide children during the crisis will be vital.
“That sense of belonging to something, particularly when everything we are doing is virtual, and having someone to reach out to, will be even more important than ever before.”
Teachers at Croydon High’s senior school are holding virtual lessons via Google Meet and preparing to hold open-book exams later in the summer term, if required. Although setting work to be completed remotely is more challenging for the younger years, Ms Pattison says her own four-year-old daughter is being kept busy with videos to watch and worksheets to complete.
Even the Year 11s and Year 13s are being catered for, allaying concerns that they are missing out by not sitting exams. Ms Pattison said pupils would get a head start on the A-level syllabus and be helped to tackle university reading lists by alumni.
“We have created a programme called, ‘Own It.’ Just because this has happened to us, we are not going to let it define us,” she adds.
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