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Sydenham High School for Girls (GDST)10th December 2020

Regular as birthday and Christmas cards but less considerably less welcome, is the arrival of the head’s letter announcing an increase in school fees. The average annual rise of between three and four per cent may be down to increased costs (staffing, pensions, upkeep etc), but household incomes have not grown at the same rate and over the course of anything up to 13 years of private education it adds up to a lot.

For all but the wealthiest, funding private education out of income is a stretch but it’s one that many families of relatively modest means think is worth considerable sacrifice. Some re-mortgage or borrow from grandparents; most go without new cars and cut back on unnecessary expenses such as holidays. Paying fees every term requires deft juggling of financial commitments, everything kept aloft by a precarious combination of determination, hope and crossed fingers.

It seemed as though nothing could halt, albeit temporarily, the inexorable upward creep of school fees let alone force a reduction, but even the toughest bursar is no match for a global pandemic. As classrooms closed and teaching went online, independent schools were impressively swift to set up not only virtual academic lessons but also extracurricular and even sports activities. They were equally responsive to parents’ expectations when it came to fee relief, most offering concessions of up to 30 per cent for the summer term. In addition, many undertook not to raise fees for the next academic year or at least to delay planned increases until the middle of 2021. 

When the pandemic struck the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), which runs 23 fee-paying schools and two academies across England and Wales, moved swiftly to set up a new central hardship fund. Any parent experiencing severe financial difficulties because of the pandemic could apply for support. 

The Trust was also able to offer some families payment holidays, giving them longer to pay fees. And it funded some time-limited bursary awards for students in year 11 and year 13, who may well have had to leave school without this financial support. In addition, GDST fees were frozen for the next academic year (2020-2021).

Schools want to help families if possible

Initial findings by The Good Schools Guide when analysing school fees during the pandemic suggest that the majority of independent schools have acted similarly to the GDST and dropped any plans to raise fees for the current academic year. Finding ways of easing financial worries and helping families stay with the school has become a priority but, contrary to popular opinion, not all independent schools are rich. Boys’ schools (or former boys’ schools) tend to have more in the way of assets because they have had many hundreds of years to accrue legacies and property. Girls’ schools, the oldest of which date from around the mid-19th century, are less generously endowed. Nevertheless, all schools will endeavour to help if they can, particularly if a child is about to take public exams such as GCSEs or A levels. 

Our advice to parents who find themselves in trouble is always to speak to the school as early as you can. It’s not easy to discuss financial issues with other people, especially in a crisis, but whatever the outcome it’s better to know what help may or may not be available sooner rather than later. 

Managing editor of The Good Schools Guide, Melanie Sanderson, says that where family finances have taken a knock, schools and parents must work together to avoid disrupting a child’s education. ‘No harm can come from a parent asking the school for help. If a family’s financial woes are so great that the child’s place at the school is in jeopardy, the school may be able to provide some assistance. Access to the funds many schools set up because of the crisis will be tightly controlled and applicants can expect a forensic examination of their financial situations before any help is given. Obviously, each school has a different sized pot and applies its own terms but if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t get. Some children have already had to leave their school and we expect more to suffer similar misfortune, but we hope headteachers would move heaven and earth and work with parents to keep a child at school.’

Do you want help from The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants?

Our expert education consultants can provide your family with one-to-one help on all of the issues raised in this article and many more. We regularly help parents understand the particulars of UK independent schools and assist them in mapping out potential educational pathways for their children. If you would like to find out more about our services, visit the Education Consultants homepage or to speak directly with one of the team email [email protected] or call 0203 286 6824

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