For this guest blog post, we asked education law experts Clifford Woodroffe and Edward Macey-Dare to answer some of the legal questions parents are pondering regarding the Covid-19 school shutdown.
1. What should parents and schools do about the payment of fees?
In our view the only sensible approach is collaboration between schools and parents: there is no precedent for the current circumstances and all parties are learning as they go. The legal relationship between the parties is set out in the contracts that parents sign, however we anticipate these may need to be varied by mutual agreement where possible to avoid parties challenging or enforcing their terms.
The substantial majority of schools are reducing their fees for the summer term to reflect both their reduced overheads and the risk that parents may not have the liquidity to pay fees due to their own changing circumstances. The amount of the reduction, if any, will be dependent on the remote teaching services being offered by each school.
The reality is that numerous parents will have been hit hard – and with very little warning - as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With many facing an immediate reduction in income, family budgets will be squeezed to the limit. Private education is a luxury and the schools know that. If they play hard ball and the pandemic extends into next year, many may find themselves facing an existential crisis before very long. Parents as a rule do not want their schools to close. They have invested heavily in these institutions not only financially but also socially. That is why collaboration between school and parents in these uncertain and novel times is so important: both parents and schools need each other. If, sadly, collaboration is not successful, then parents should review their individual contracts and, if necessary, seek legal advice.
2. Can a school refuse to compromise on school fees on the basis that it is a charity?
In short, we think this is most unlikely. Unless the charity's governing document is exceedingly restrictive, then there should be no impediment to schools, most of which are charities, agreeing to reduced fees. Specific legal advice on this point can be sought if necessary.
3. Can parents hold a child back a year if not satisfied with the remote teaching facilities?
This is a question we are expecting to see being raised more frequently as families and schools begin to adjust to the current circumstances. Parents of children who are struggling with the new arrangements and are summer-born may wish to keep their child back a year so they re-do their current year rather than fall behind. Schools will need to approach these requests on a case by case basis and seek to avoid being inundated. Most schools will already have policies in place to deal with such requests, but they should review these now in anticipation of greater demand.
Clifford Woodroffe and Edward Macey-Dare are Partners in the dispute resolution department of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams. The Firm specialises in education and charity law and routinely advises both schools and parents on all matters concerning education.