Coronavirus: Private school closures will put pressure on state

The closure of private schools unable to weather the economic hit from Covid-19 will put more pressure on state schools as they welcome back additional pupils while social distancing.

Two long-standing prep schools announced this week they would close permanently. One, the 180-year-old Ashdown House Preparatory School in Sussex, is an alma mater of prime minister Boris Johnson.

Peter Woodroffe, the deputy chief executive of the Independent Schools Association (ISA), said it was a “really difficult time for the sector. There will be casualties and that will put a burden on the state sector.”

The association, which represents more than 500 schools, said seven had closed. The Independent Schools Council (ISC), another sector body that represents more than 1,300 private schools, said it did not have figures on closures.

Government guidance advises private schools to access its furlough scheme “to retain staff and enable the school to reopen fully in due course”.

But Woodroffe said the true impact would be seen after the government’s aid programmes were wound-up later this year. “There’s going to be businesses closing for the next couple of years, and that will impact people that won’t be able to afford to send their children to private schools.” 

He pointed to the 2008-09 recession as a potential indicator of the fall-out, although the Bank of England has warned the upcoming recession will be the worst for 300 years.

Figures collated by the ISC in its annual census show the number of pupils in its member schools dropped from a pre-recession high in 2009 of 514,531, to a post-recession low in 2011 of 506,500. 

While this represents a drop of just 1.5 per cent, it took eight years for the number of private schools to bounce back to pre-recession numbers. 

The ISC census shows there were 1,271 private school members in 2009. This number steadily fell each year until a low of 1,221 in 2012, before rebounding and surpassing the pre-recession number in 2016.

But any closures in the immediate future – resulting in more pupils joining state schools – will come at a problematic time, particularly for primaries. 

Some are already struggling to welcome back all the pupils eligible to return this week – reception, year 1 and year 6 – alongside strict social distancing measures that demand spaced desks, one-way systems in corridors and classes capped at 15.

Ashdown House, which has 104 pupils on roll out of a capacity for 173, will close at the end of this term.

The school, which charges annual boarding fees of nearly £30,000, was founded in 1843. However, it projected that it would be less than a third full next year, following a decline in international boarders and fewer parents taking up places for their children.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported on Wednesday that Minster School, a prep school that provides choristers for York’s cathedral, will close at the end of this term after a “catastrophic loss of income” caused a £5 million budget shortfall. 

The 145-pupil school has origins dating back to AD627 and has existed in its current form since 1903.

HawleyHurst school, in Camberley, Surrey, shut suddenly after going into administration in April. The school, owned by Sir Tim Smit, who founded The Eden Project in Cornwall, reportedly had a £600,000 hole in its finances. According to government data it had 282 pupils, from a capacity of 450. 

Victoria Smit, the school’s principal and the founder’s sister, told parents that coronavirus had a “hugely detrimental impact on our ability to continue with fee income stopped in its tracks”. 

Tom Beardmore-Gray, the chief executive of the Cothill Trust, which runs Ashdown school, said the trust had invested heavily in the school but “it is not possible to maintain this support… The harsh reality is that the impact of the coronavirus has changed everything.”

The school had also been at the centre of a child sex abuse investigation. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse heard last year that sexual touching at the school was “seen as acceptable” for almost 25 years from 1969.

Julie Robinson, the ISC’s chief executive, said it was “impossible to predict with any accuracy the full impact this pandemic will have. We really are all in this together and much depends upon how long the restrictions are in place for.”

Woodroffe said private schools that were coping had built up a “good amount of parental support” to help them through. 

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  1. This is a race to secure pupils’ education. With independent schools facing financial sustainability challenges of the like not seen before, positive and innovative solutions must be found. The needs of the pupils must be at the heart of any decisions on the future of individual independent schools. This duty not only sits with trustees, governors and independent school owners, who of course are seeking the best education and opportunity for pupils, but with the education sector as a whole.

    No school will have taken a closure decision lightly, recognising the impact it would have on the pupils’ education continuity and leaving parents with an immediate predicament, but will schools be aware of the wider impact their closure will have on local school places. Before triggering such a fundamental process trustees, governors and proprietors should reach out across the whole education sector, independent and state, to explore alternative solutions that will provide the best outcomes for all pupils. This could be independent schools forming new and innovative partnership group structures, mutually beneficial mergers, or state and independent schools joining up in multi-academy and independent schools’ trusts (MAISTs). This might require a legislation change or a creative way to structure mutually beneficial partnerships, but why not? If independent schools close, and where capacity currently in the independent system is filled with some of the displaced pupils, the remainder of pupils will fall into the responsibility of the state sector. Let’s be proactive and find solutions to secure great educational outcomes for all pupils now.

    Impartially facilitated conversations between independent sector bodies, regional school commissioners and local authorities might just be the next small step to exploring solutions.

    If your independent school would like to explore creative solutions to challenges created by significant financial pressures, do get in touch. Victoria FitzGerald

  2. Good to see the press picking up on this very important issue – that the closure of independent schools will have an impact on the state sector schools. And whilst this Schools Week article is driven from the covid-19 perspective, we should not lose sight of the pre-existing significant cost pressures that independent schools were and are facing, such as rising costs for teachers pay and teachers pension contributions, that will be contributing to the financial instability of some independent schools.

    The scale of the impact however – increasing pupil numbers needing places, may be further compounded, as it is happening at not only a time of challenging operating models due to social distancing etc, but also when many of the pending new free schools due to open in the next few years, that will deliver much needed places in some areas, are likely to have their opening dates delayed due to the building sector delays from the covid-19 pandemic.

    I agree with Victoria’s suggestions of the whole sector – independent and state, working together to devise solutions that provide the best outcome for all pupils. Well considered school to school formalised partnerships and mergers should be looked upon as opportunities to enhance provision, enable continuity for pupils, protect places and strengthen each school within the partnership group, and not as something to be feared. The pupils’ requirements must be central and foremost in the search for the right solutions, and where closure becomes the ‘right solution’ all efforts must be taken to ensure education provision is available to all.

    We cannot allow an increasing demand for places to have a detrimental effect on children’s education as it will be the most disadvantaged that bear the greatest burden.

    As Victoria rightly suggests – finding creative collective solutions between independent schools and collective solutions between state and independent schools should be an option to be explored by any independent school facing a sustainability crisis.

    Lock House Consulting Ltd, works with all types of schools to help evaluate and broker education partnership solutions that put children at the heart of the outcomes.

  3. David Redshaw

    The independent sector is a profit making business, having divorced itself from the taxpayer-funded state school system. As such it stands or falls on its ability to balance the books. Many of these schools are in a constant race to provide more and more posh facilities to attract the pupils and cash of wealthy parents. As a result they are often in debt or at least without much of a cash margin and thus susceptible to a crisis. The state school system (with many fewer posh facilities) in the end will weather the storm and the taxpayers (or perhaps the bond markets) will come to the rescue. But that’s the choice the private sector makes when it sees profit as more important than education.

  4. David Redshaw

    The closure of these places shouldn’t put any pressure at all on the state system which has enough problems already. Let the wealthy parents of these brats try and educate them at home. Then they’ll find out what teaching is all about. They chose to go private. Why should the state system now have to rescue them? Ho ho ho! disdainful, Tory-voting Yahs! Put down your Daily Telegraphs and put your shoulders to the wheel – or your faces to the chalkboard – and feel the pedagogic pressure.