Independent schools face “a new norm come September”, the chief executive of the Independent Schools Association (ISA) has said, as the full impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the sector begins to be understood.
ISA chief Neil Roskilly told Independent Education Today that independent schools need government to clarify its wage support package as soon as possible
Speaking of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Roskilly said: “Schools simply don’t know if it’s a reasonable option at the moment.
“What schools need to know is the fine detail. Can they apply? What are the rules that HMRC will apply? Like so many businesses, they need this information quite desperately.”
The ISA set up a dedicated hotline for its 541 member schools a year ago, in order to deal with concerns and offer day-to-day guidance. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the lines have been inundated with calls from around the country.
— Neil Roskilly (@ISAschoolsCEO) March 20, 2020
But the unprecedented scale of the challenge now facing the sector has prompted the association to go one step further and establish a support group – the School Leadership Expert Crisis Mentoring Group.
The group has circulated the contact details of 13 experienced headteachers to its members – these sector stalwarts, who’ve collectively spent decades in the driving seat, are now taking calls and offering advice to heads in a crisis.
Judging from phone calls made to the ISA so far, Roskilly said redundancies are not on the horizon yet, despite the challenging financial climate. “Furlough doesn’t exist in the UK, to the best of my knowledge, so it’s not clear how the government’s new plans will work.
“Schools will be reluctant to go down the route of redundancies, though, I think. But, if a school is stretched and staff costs account for 60-75% of costs, then staffing is the something to look at. Often that will mean looking at the number of TAs and admin support staff.”
Furlough doesn’t exist in the UK, to the best of my knowledge, so it’s not clear how the government’s new plans will work
– Neil Roskilly, ISA
We’ll be circulating direct mobile numbers for experienced expert school leaders so @isaschools can share their concerns and get advice through challenging times. ISA has the strongest community of Members and we’ll get through together.
— Neil Roskilly (@ISAschoolsCEO) March 19, 2020
Roskilly said headteachers were ringing the hotline seeking answers to their financial concerns, as the full scale of the government-imposed lockdown begins to be realised. The loss of revenue could be a debilitating blow to the sector, which has already faced an increase in pension contributions required from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS).
“For some schools, it’s a huge concern,” Roskilly agreed, “but, many schools have grasped the nettle and realised the difficult position parents are in.”
Some are considering reimbursing summer term fees – something Roskilly described as “a good option for school leaders to consider”.
The ISA chief understands that a number of non-member schools have sent out fee letters to parents, but he said they appear to “have not gone down well, because they’ve not shown a huge amount of sympathy with parents’ position”.
“It is difficult for any school to say we’re going on as normal. Highly competitive schools might be able to carry on as if nothing has happened, but there aren’t many schools in that position. My great worry is schools might think they’re immune.”
The impact of lost revenue would mean “a new norm come September” for independent schools, Roskilly predicts.
“Some schools might have introduced small fee increases this September to help pay for sporting facilities. I’d predict there won’t be many new building facilities in the next two to three years. There certainly will be a new norm come September. Some schools may maintain fee levels, others will cut them dramatically.
I’d predict there won’t be many new building facilities in the next two to three years
“Parents going forward won’t be able to afford the same fees in the near future. We represent so many different types of independent school, and not all are high-fees institutions with large investments and cash reserves to draw upon. There are independent schools that charge the same or less than what the government give to state schools. There is a huge range.”
Schools may centralise back room services or pool resources with neighbouring institutions to help rein in expenses. Leaders may also need to draw on reserves and put more into bursaries to support parents if the economic crunch develops into a prolonged downturn.
As reports come in from the front line, Roskilly said his members appear to have transitioned to distance learning with few complications.
“It is truly brilliant what has been achieved. Some of our schools have even managed to keep to the full timetable. It is more difficult to achieve that seamless transition for early years pupils, but I’m really heartened by what I’ve seen. Many schools have dedicated hotlines to assist parents– teachers are going way beyond just setting work and marking it.”
It is truly brilliant what has been achieved. Some of our schools have even managed to keep to the full timetable
It is not yet known how long the coronavirus disruption will last, but Roskilly rejected the idea schools would not be able to open as planned in September.
“I think most are expecting schools to be back up and running by September. Some schools hope they can open up over the summer for catch-up classes. But I think all are expecting to be open in September, potentially with reduced numbers.”
Within weeks, Ofqual will explain how exam boards should award GCSE and A-level grades. The final grades are expected to reach schools in time for the respective annual results days, and Roskilly said his members are “perfectly happy” with the plans put forward by the regulator.
“The emphasis is on predicted grades and for the vast majority that’s fine. There needs to be an appeals process and another opportunity to assess students that have fallen through the net. The process could most impact children with special educational needs. The evidence schools have of their progress might not be enough. So, if award bodies are open to special consideration for vulnerable groups, it is as fair as it can be.”