Enrolment figures post-Covid: cause for concern or optimism?

Will the challenges of the pandemic cause longer-term issues for independent schools when it comes to enrolment, or is the sector likely to bounce back rapidly?

It’s an understatement to say that the past year has been incredibly challenging for independent schools. According to the authors of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) Census and Annual Report, the period between the 2020 and 2021 editions was “possibly the most difficult for schools in the UK since the second world war”.

“School communities have experienced an exceptionally demanding year responding to the pandemic,” ISC chief executive Julie Robinson says. “Teachers, school staff, heads and governors, and pupils and their families deserve huge credit for all they have endured and overcome.”

But will the challenges of the pandemic cause longer-term issues for independent schools when it comes to enrolment, or is the sector likely to bounce back rapidly? While it’s still too early to say for certain, signs are – cautiously – promising.

Numbers challenge

One of the chief conclusions of the 2021 ISC Census was the number of students enrolled in independent schools falling for the first time in a decade. There was an overall 1.3% drop – equivalent to more than 5,000 students – during the period.

This is, of course, bad news, but should also be taken in conjunction with the fact that this figure comes at a time when the total number of students (more than 532,000) enrolled in independent schools is the third highest in ISC’s records.

“Pupil numbers did not significantly decline, contrary to some predictions, though there was inevitably a fall in the number of boarders,” says Robinson.

These numbers were borne out by the schools I spoke with. Some said that they had experienced slight declines in numbers, although others, like Heathfield School, Ascot, actually reported “an increase of over 3%” for the period covered by the census.

Pupil numbers did not significantly decline, contrary to some predictions, though there was inevitably a fall in the number of boarders – Julie Robinson, ISC

Many reported that the biggest challenge had come from overseas student populations, largely due to concerns about, or restrictions on, international travels. According to the ISC, numbers of overseas borders decreased from 29,000 to 24,000, marking a drop of 17%.

Heathfield School has around 20% of its students from overseas. Sarah Wilson, head of Heathfield, notes: “For the September 2020 start, we did find a number of new international joiners either withdraw or defer their place at the school.” However, she said that “this did not impact our numbers on roll”.

“As a day and boarding school, we inevitably have a real mixture of pupils from near and far and hence our prospective pupil base is broad and robust,” says Rebecca Tear, headmistress at Badminton School, Bristol. “We have not seen a drop in enrolment from any specific region – but perhaps seeing more caution as to confirming start dates with some international students or families relocating to [the] UK for whom travel plans are not concrete.”

In some cases, the lack of student movement, at least on a local level, benefited schools. Claire Richardson, head of admissions at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, says that the school had “noticed a reduction in the number of current students submitting their notice to leave our school to attend a different one; this meant that we didn’t recruit for entry for Y8, 9 and 10”.

Freeze in fees

While the number of students in independent education has declined slightly, especially affecting those schools which rely on a large international student base, the one-two punch of the pandemic has been mounting challenges at a time when fees are staying flat.

Some schools experienced a small decline in enrolment numbers, while all experienced the need to invest in new infrastructure allowing for remote learning and similar Covid responses. Many said that they had not increased fees during the period.

“Affordability has been a strong focus in our financial planning for many years and we have tracked below many independent schools at an inflationary 2% average since 2016,” says Chris Wheeler, principal at Monkton Combe School, Bath.

“Recognising the challenges parents have faced, we delayed our fee increase for 2020–21 until the summer term and the 2021–2022 increase will only take effect in January 2022. There have been added costs as well as a need to recognise that two long periods not able to provide boarding for most pupils during lockdowns would have to be reflected in a fee response.”

Andy Johnson, head of Truro School Senior, adds: “We froze fees for the academic year 2020–21 and absorbed added costs. We also offered fee discounts for the periods of lockdown learning, passing costs saved by the not full operation of the school site back to parents where possible. Yes, there were costs incurred – including in IT – but there have also been costs saved too, allowing us to operate in this way.”

He notes that fees will increase by 2% for the 2021–2022 academic year. But he points out: “This is typical of the kind of rise that would normally happen – no more than that – so what we have not done is sought to recover the lost year of fee increase. We have absorbed it.”

Road to recovery

Ultimately, the big question is how quickly post-Covid recovery will take place and what this means for the independent schools sector as a whole. Will the UK experience a V-shaped recovery in which the world snaps back as quickly as it shut down, a more gradual U-shaped recovery, a false start-laden W-shaped recovery, or a dreaded L-shaped lack of recovery? And how, in turn, will this impact the independent education sector?

“The next steps in independent education will really vary from school to school,” says Tear. While she stressed that the challenges of lockdown had “reinforced parent confidence” in specific schools, there will also be ramifications.

She continues: “There are families whose income or businesses have been affected and have made the hard decision to make cost savings by stepping away from independent education. The geography of a school, its client base and its performance during remote provision will all certainly be in the mix as its destiny unfolds.”

Even this is unpredictable, however. As Robinson points out, one of the data points highlighted by the 2021 Census is how the number of means-tested fee assistance handed out over the past year has increased, potentially widening participation. “Some £455m of means-tested fee assistance was provided, an increase of £15m from last year,” she says.

The predicted number on roll for the September 2021 start has increased by over 16% from last year and we anticipate numbers increasing over the next few years – Sarah Wilson, Heathfield School

Many schools expressed their confidence at the promising signs of green shoots. Wilson says: “The predicted number on roll for the September 2021 start has increased by over 16% from last year and we anticipate numbers increasing over the next few years, though we have a number of year groups where we are at capacity.”

She says these numbers are in keeping with a trend at Heathfield School that has been evidenced “over the past five years and, in particular, over the past two.”

Johnson says of Truro School: “As a 3–18 school we currently have 1,056 pupils on roll. In September 2021 we expect to have 1,140 pupils – an increase of 8% in the overall pupil roll.”

Wheeler describes Monkton Combe School as “positive and upbeat” as its roll is “rapidly returning to pre-pandemic levels” where they were essentially full. He suggests that, while challenges remain, this could be the start of a noticeable upswing for the sectors – especially for schools thriving before Covid.

Enriching the lives of students

“For schools who entered the pandemic in a more precarious position, recovery will take longer as ever-more savvy parents look closely at the strength of finance in the school they are joining,” says Wheeler.

“This is encouraging market consolidation, however, with valuable and effective partnerships springing up all over the place which will enhance the independent offering even further. The debate about rethinking assessment has been supercharged by the pandemic and this could see independent schools helping to lead the biggest change in education since WWII as well, which would enrich the lives of every pupil for the future.”

Robinson strikes a cautious, yet overall optimistic, note: “Of course, the pandemic is far from over and we wait to see whether the economy bounces back or not. In the meantime, heads, governors, teachers and support staff continue to do all they can to support their school communities, putting the education and wellbeing of pupils at the heart of their decision-making.”

It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions for what the end of the pandemic will mean for independent schools. However, after a dip that may not have been as severe as feared, it seems many are cautiously optimistic about a rapid return to normal – and, perhaps, even a return to the previous boom times. Signs are looking good.

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