The coronavirus crisis has brought British independent schools to their lowest ebb since 1940. Eighty years ago, the Depression had already hit boarding and rural schools hard but then the war brought several to their knees. Today, those in deepest trouble are boarding schools reliant on students from overseas, small schools already in difficulty because of the hike in teacher pension costs, and those schools charging lower fees that have no room for further cuts.
Inevitably, parents struggling to pay fees during this crisis are clamouring for the bills to be reduced next term. Many have seen their own salaries fall and are struggling. Their cause received widespread support last week after news that some of Britain’s best known and richest independent schools had resisted parental demands for reductions in tuition fees, while agreeing a rebate for boarding charges.
Independent schools point out that they educate a disproportionately high number of our future medics, scientists, mathematicians, linguists and the professions, but they have few defenders in high places. The virus has become the latest stick with which to beat them. “Cut fees” is a popular cry.
Many schools though have already cut fees by some 20 per cent, made possible by furloughing staff. They are charities, and few make much of a surplus. Their teachers, as at state schools this Easter holiday, are working ferociously to prepare high-quality online lessons for the start of term next week. Heavy fee cuts will put many out of business, as happened to Weymouth College in 1940.
Economic and social disruption, like wars, are history’s greatest impetus to change. This crisis provides an opportunity to rethink the place of these schools, whose independence and excellence are so important.
Churchill said when visiting his alma mater, Harrow, in December 1940: “When the war is won, it must be one of the aims [to ensure] the advantages and privilege which have hitherto only been enjoyed by the few shall be far more widely shared by the youth of the nation as a whole.”
In 1942, his government set up the Fleming committee to consider this issue. It recommended private schools retain their independence, but urged that they be opened up to a much wider social base. Ironically, it was the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee which, despite its radicalism elsewhere, ducked this issue. The opportunity must not be lost again.
Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham