Artillery Row

Covid-19 is proving fatal to independent schools

Prejudice against fee paying schools means the crisis is not even being discussed

The Prime Minister’s prep school, Ashdown House, will close permanently this summer.  Many other independent schools will not survive the corona crisis. This is a tragedy, argues David James, the Deputy Head of a leading boarding school. Yet prejudice against fee paying schools means that the existential threat facing large parts of the sector has not become a subject of national debate.

At the end of this uniquely difficult academic year some schools will close and never reopen. 

Such a sentence, if it had been applied to the state sector, would cause an outcry from the liberal commentariat. The op-ed pages of the Guardian, the sanctimonious Twitter feeds of Owen and Polly, Ash and Aaron, the talking heads trotted into BBC studios to soundbite their way through an unbalanced debate, all would condemn the government for lazy laissez-faire educational policies that have permitted such a loss. 

And this time they would be right to do so because any school that shuts down is a tragedy: it robs children of their routines, disrupts their academic progress, and results in many staff redundancies. A closed school is an evocative symbol: those silent classrooms articulate not just lost innocence, but political indifference. Some things should be protected from the cold mathematics of the market.

One school closing is immensely sad, but we are on the brink of seeing hundreds shutting their gates forever. But when this happens there will be no valedictions in the Guardian, social media will remain muted, and the BBC, in its steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusivity, will completely ignore the whole thing. Why? Because these schools charge fees, and even though many of them stayed open during the lockdown for the children of key workers, and others shared staff and resources with state schools, they have little political capital to draw on in these times of brutal virtue signalling. Nobody claps for them on the steps of Number 10. And if ever a silence spoke louder than words, listen to the Prime Minister saying nothing about the closure of his former prep school. That school is just one of many in an educational ICU, with an estimated 30% of the sector now facing corona-induced early deaths.

It makes no sense for the government to stand by and watch these schools go out of business

Many independent schools were struggling before Covid-19: the financial strains, including the 43% increase in employer costs to the Teachers Pension Scheme, were considerable. Contrary to what many believe, most independent schools are not flush with money: the typical pupil numbers in such schools in England is 190;  many operate on tiny margins, with some annual fees as low as £6K (considerably below the frequently quoted £40K+ that the likes of Eton and Harrow can charge). Even so, this hugely diverse sector annually contributes £13.7 billion to the UK GDP, supports over 300,000 jobs, and pays £4.1 billion in yearly tax revenues. Furthermore, by educating well over 500,000 pupils who would be otherwise educated in state schools, it builds some additional flexibility into a school sector that is always under strain.  

So it makes no sense – either financially, educationally or morally –  for the government to stand by and watch these schools go out of business.  But common sense is not a quality that Westminster is over supplied with at the moment. Indeed, the desire to be socially distanced from any form of perceived elitism is likely to shape this unwise and economically self-lacerating form of political expediency in the near-future. 

Independent schools have survived difficult times before, and many critics will argue that we will survive because our influence guarantees our affluence (or the other way round). They would be wrong.  Those overseas students who propped up the sector during the last financial crisis will, because of travel restrictions, be mostly absent in September. Added to this, parents will, understandably, be reluctant to send their children far away into a world that suddenly looks unstable, and more dangerous. And the slowing domestic demographic at primary school age in the UK, coupled with a prolonged economic recession, could, according to some sources, contribute to  as many as 180 independent schools closing, with boarding schools being particularly vulnerable. They will need help if they are to survive.

The independent school sector contributes £13.7 billion to UK GDP

For this country to emerge from this pandemic and create a strong economy again it will have to build on its strengths, and education is undoubtedly one of these.  It is why so many are willing to spend substantial amounts of money to study in our independent schools and universities. If they no longer exist, or survive only in denuded form, that money will flow elsewhere, replenishing societies which prioritise jobs over perceived privilege. Furthermore, those networks created in our classrooms and lecture halls need to be restored and maintained because the much-derided old school ties help bind companies and economies together: now, more than ever, we can’t afford to play politics with such valuable relationships.  

The government should rise above the myopic online skirmishes which will inevitably break out if it says it is going to step in to save independent schools.  It should act coolly, but with compassion, arguing that these are places of excellence and innovation, they are institutions that have created over one thousand partnerships with state schools, and are academically world-class.  To see them close will benefit nobody and hurt many, including thousands of children.  

But whether a government that has been exposed as failing in so many areas will have the moral duty to act in the long-term interests of the country, rather than its own survival, is highly debatable.  What seems more likely is that when the bells ring across hundreds of playgrounds this Summer, they will not only mark the end of lessons, but will be a death knell counting down a long line of schools to extinction. 

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