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Private schools group branded ‘insensitive’ over partnership with debt collection agency

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A new “partnership” between an organisation representing more than 500 private schools and a debt collection agency could result in hard-up parents being “hounded” for unpaid fees during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Independent Schools Association (ISA) announced this week that Frontline Collections has become a “gold preferred supplier” to its members. It will seek to “assist independent schools across the UK in recouping unpaid school fees”.

To call in debt collectors for struggling families during this difficult time is just not acceptable and very insensitive

It comes as official records show parents have continued to face bankruptcy over unpaid fees, with at least four successful court petitions from private schools since March.

Unemployment has soared in the past few months, with the Office for National Statistics reporting the number of redundancies in the UK almost doubling in the three months to August. This has put pressure on private schools, a number of which have had to close.

In a statement announcing the partnership with Frontline, ISA Schools said the sustainability of private schools was a “major challenge that many are currently facing”.

But Lord Storey, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson in the House of Lords, said the use of debt collectors to recoup money from struggling families during Covid was “just not acceptable and very insensitive”.

“Imagine the national outcry there would be if state schools employed debt collectors to collect dinner money or after school club [fees]. Parents need support, not being hounded by a debt agency.”

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, the ISA’s chief executive, said private schools “have tried hard to be sensitive” to the pressures parents faced. A “significant number” had reduced fees and scrapped increases, while some had used dedicated hardship funds to help families.

However, he said that “like many businesses”, there were occasions when private schools used debt collection agencies as a “last resort”.

Lord Storey

“This is not a new feature this year. If anything, Covid’s impact on some parents’ finances mean that this year independent schools are probably even keener than usual to hold off on engaging such agencies for as long as possible.”

Chris Spencer, Frontline’s operations manager, told Schools Week he had seen a “small recent spike” in the number of parents not paying their fees, but it was too early to say whether this was as a result of the pandemic.

“We are extremely mindful of the delicate nature and discretion need when approaching the subject of unpaid school fees. We normally will only accept instructions where the child has left the school already.”

Spencer said the company usually tried to engage with parents through letters, telephone calls “and other direct communications”. Its objective was to “negotiate and manage repayment of the school fees, be it in parts or full payment”.

“Where the parent refuses to co-operate or respond to our efforts then we may send an agent to their property to try and engage them. Legal action to enforce payment of the debt can be taken where it is appropriate to do so.”

Robert Verkaik, the co-founder of the Private School Policy Reform think tank, said the news of the partnership between ISA and Frontline “will only add to the misery of thousands of families desperately trying to make ends meet”.

A search of official records by Schools Week show at least four people have been declared bankrupt following petitions by private schools made during the pandemic.

A Schools Week investigation in 2015 first revealed the practice, with at least 68 parents declared bankrupt after being chased for unpaid fees by the private education company Cognita.

How the ISA broke the news of its partnership

However, further analysis this week of data published by The London Gazette found that since the start of 2015, at least 130 people have been made bankrupt following petitions from 25 different private school providers.

The true figure is likely to be higher as our analysis was not an extensive search of all providers, and individual orders are taken down from the website after a certain length of time.

Two parents were given bankruptcy orders following petitions launched in March and June by the United Church Schools Trust, part of United Learning.

The private school provider oversaw the largest number of bankruptcy petitions since 2015 in our analysis (49) followed by Cognita (36).

A spokesperson for the United Church Schools Trust said none of its petitions related to fees unpaid during the pandemic, and that the trust had created a £4 million hardship fund to help struggling parents, on top if its normal fees assistance programme.

“We have a responsibility to recover what is owed to the charity by the very few who refuse to pay. Very occasionally, legal proceedings are the only way to do this, including in cases where individuals who have or appear to have substantial assets are claiming to be unable to pay.”

In April, Beachborough School Trust, which runs Beachborough prep school in Northamptonshire, petitioned for the bankruptcy of one parent, who was made bankrupt five months later. The school told Schools Week the petition was in relation to unpaid fees from 2019.

Also in April, the Hill House School Limited, which runs Hill House School in Doncaster, submitted a petition, which was approved in September.

The organisation representing independent school bursars this week urged parents struggling to pay fees to get in touch with schools, which it said were “generally taking a sympathetic view”.

David Woodgate, the chief executive of the ISBA, said private schools had “always collected bad debt”, and that they sought to work with parents in the first instance, often offering payment holidays and sometimes cancelling debt.

“But where there’s a situation where parents won’t pay, sometimes you have to have recourse to legal means, whether through solicitors or, in extremis, some form of debt collection. But it’s a very small number and it’s certainly not been stimulated by Covid.”



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7 Comments

  1. Mark Watson

    So can I just check, if an independent school isn’t being paid the fees that parents have signed up for and promised to pay, and as a result is having difficulty paying teachers’ wages, does Schools Week think that rather than the debtors being chased for payment the teachers, or suppliers to the school, should agree to forego some of their money?

    This is just another ‘story’ trying to paint independent schools in a bad light. The fact is that most independent schools are not like Eton (something that is rarely acknowledged) and do not sit on large financial reserves. To these schools, the fees probably make up over 99% of their income, and if they don’t get paid they can’t continue to operate. If they go under everyone suffers – the children, the teachers, the suppliers etc.

    The comments from Lord Storey are frankly pathetic, and again are all to do with trying to put forward a populist image rather than having any basis in common sense. A shame that rather than challenge what he says, or try to place it in context, the journalist just parrots it. In maintained schools the percentage of income represented by dinner money or after school club fees is not only minimal in the context of the overall income, but debt builds up very slowly. Of course on top of that we’ve heard numerous stories in Schools Week about maintained schools taking action when these monies aren’t paid – whether it’s restricting access to food, stopping pupils attending proms or activities etc.

    Of course no-one would dispute the fact that at any time, let alone the current circumstances, sticking a debt collector on anyone when they’re a day late with a payment is insensitive. It’s also frankly stupid and would cost the schools lots of money that they wouldn’t get back. So I imagine that a debt collection agency is only used as a last resort, when the school doesn’t feel as though it’s getting anywhere. So if a parent who owes fees simply stops responding to the school, the only choices are presumably a debt collection agency or simply writing the debt off.

    Schools Week is a business. I wonder what would happen if I owed Schools Week £10,000, didn’t pay it, and made no effort to engage with them. Would they consider my financial position, conclude I was probably having a tough time with lockdown, and write off the debt? I think we all know the answer …

  2. Mark Watson

    Something else was confusing me about this article. Why on earth is there a quote from the Private School Policy Reform organisation in here? In a story about the Independent Schools Association forming a partnership with a debt collection agency, why ask for a quote from an group that’s opposed to the whole notion of private education and is anti independent schools? It’s not like you’re going to get an objective viewpoint or a consideration of the finer details (noteworthy that there’s no counterbalance from a pro-independent schools group). It’s as balanced and got as much journalistic integrity as asking Comprehensive Future to give their opinion when there’s an article about grammar schools. (Oh, whoops.)

    Then I had a look at the Private School Policy Reform website and it all made sense. It was founded by Jess Staufenberg. If the name seems familiar it’s because it’s the same Jess Staufenberg that’s a journalist for Schools Week. Conflict of interest? Surely not ………

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the other posts. Independent Schools rely on the payment of fees. Why should a small percentage of non paying parents jeopardise the futures of others. The fact that the ISA has partnered Frontline Collections should be viewed as a pragmatic and sensible move. Rather than focusing on the precarious financial plight of many private schools, This article is totally unbalanced and does not factor in all the equations and relevant viewpoints.

  4. Janet Downs

    Mark – you’re right that most private schools are not like Eton. The description ‘independent’ is used too often to imply all private schools have superior facilities and better teaching, than state schools. This results in the ‘cachet’ which the Economist identified as being one reason for parents sending their children to the bargain-basement Independent Grammar School Durham. https://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2018/05/pupils-at-low-cost-durham-school-will-have-cachet-of-being-educated-privately-says-economist
    You’re also right that parents made a commitment to pay fees when they enrolled their children into private schools. The examples above were for fees accrued before covid. They should be honoured. A simple way to avoid such bad debts is to enrol children in state schools.

  5. Janet Downs

    The real tragedy here is that parents have been seduced to commit money they can’t afford in the belief they’re buying a superior education. They’ve also saddled their offspring with the guilt that their schooling has scuppered the family finances.

  6. Mark Watson

    Thank you to Peter and Janet for proving my point so clearly.

    If you are deadset against private schools, as Peter, Janet and the Private School Policy Reform clearly are, that that is absolutely your right, and when there is an article or discussion about whether private school is a good thing (as many people believe) or “immoral” and “a tragedy” (as Peter and Janet believe) then fill your boots and explain why you think it is wrong.

    Peter and Janet have been forthright about their opposition to private education. Contrast that with the attempt by Robert Verkaik of the Private School Policy Reform to co-opt a “story” on the partnership between the ISA and Frontline to further his own agenda by the back door. Not that I particularly blame him – he was offered a clear shot at goal by Schools Week who clearly have the same agenda but don’t feel as though they can actually come out and say it.