Paying for private education in 2021: our school fees and divorce update

School fees remain a major concern for separating and divorcing parents. In this new article for summer 2021, Director Rita Gupta assesses the impact of the pandemic on both the cost of school fees and the availability of places for new students.

Private schools provide more than just a first-class education. During a separation and subsequent divorce, it is a great help if your children remain in a supportive and consistent school environment. Moving to a new school, private or state, will inevitably involve disruption, distress and loss of social contacts at a time when so much else is changing in their lives too. That’s why many parents prioritise the payment of school fees in their financial settlements.

Post-pandemic, there seems to be a paradox emerging for parents.

  • On the one hand, they are eager to keep children in public schools but have real concerns over the continuing costs amidst economic uncertainty.
  • On the other hand, there has been a fall in some parts of the UK in student numbers, causing concern about the long-term viability of the schools themselves.

Finally, there is a strong sense of FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. If parents withdraw children from school now and wish to return them to private education once their financial position is more secure, there may not be places available.

Nothing illustrates this better than two articles, one in the Financial Times, one in The Telegraph.


Expected surge in demand

According to the Financial Times, independent schools expect a surge in pupil numbers as parents act on concerns about the loss of education during the pandemic.

This view is backed by the findings of a research review by Ofqual:

“By the summer of 2020, (northern hemisphere) when schools in many countries break for holidays, globally, the average student had missed almost 50 school days – or a quarter of a school year. School closures in the second quarter of 2020 put students typically 2 to 3 months behind the academic milestones their cohorts would be expected to reach. As anticipated, losses were frequently greater in mathematics (3 months) than in reading (one-and-a-half months).”

Demand may also be driven by working parents having accrued more savings than in previous years, due to lockdown.


Expected downturn in demand

An article in The Telegraph states that there has been a major decline in pupil numbers at UK private school.

“Private schools have seen the biggest drop in pupil numbers for five years, as the pandemic has led to families “tightening their purse strings”. A drop of 1.3 per cent … represents the biggest year-on-year decline since 2016.”

The article also raises concerns over the viability of small private schools that experience major reductions in student numbers.

However, Melanie Sanderson, managing editor of the Good Schools Guide, also points out that the fall in student numbers is regional.

"In London and the South East, I think the reverse is actually true. I know that schools within the M25, and really good schools in the home counties are not seeing a drop in their number of registrations.”

So, for parents with children either attending or planning to attend public school in our area around Reading and the Home Counties, it is a balancing act between affordability and accessibility.


Concerned about school fees?

To discuss your situation with one of our family law Directors., contact us to book your reduced fee 1 hour consultation. We have helped many separating parents secure private school fees funding agreements and ensure their children’s education continues after they divorce.


School fees increases for 2021

According to the Independent Schools Council , fees for UK private schools increased on average by 1.1 per cent year on year in 2021. This is compared with 4.1 per cent in 2020. This brings the average fee for UK independent schools to £15,191 a year for day pupils and £36,000 for boarders.

However, this is an average cost with top schools and college fees considerably higher. For example, Brighton College, described as the School of the Decade by the Sunday Times in 2020, levies fees of over £50,000 per year. Eleven other top schools, including Cheltenham Ladies College, Winchester College, Harrow, Eton, and Charterhouse, all cost over £40,000 a year.


More means-tested fee assistance

Fortunately for hard-pressed parents, the amount of means-tested fee assistance has also increased. According to Independent Education Today:

“£1.1bn was provided in fee assistance in 2020; more than £900m directly from schools and £440m on a means-tested basis … Pupils receiving means-tested fee assistance received on average £9,919 per annum, an increase of 5.2% compared with 2019.”


Raising fees a “last resort”

Private schools are acutely aware of the issue of fees not rising beyond reach. As David Woodgate, chief executive of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA) explained:

“I think (there is now) a huge awareness that putting fees up by anything above inflation is probably the last resort. It’s about putting fee levels under the microscope and realising schools can’t automatically pass on financial shocks to parents by way of increased fees.”


Who pays the school fees after we divorce?

This is a question we get asked all the time, and the answer is - it depends. As we say in our popular article on How to Protect School Fees we say:

“In the best-case scenario, payment of school fees is included in your divorce financial agreement. In a more contentious environment, you may need to go to court for a School Fees Order, which can cover school fees plus extras such as music lessons, uniforms, school trips, etc.”


More help on paying school fees

If you as co-parents are concerned about paying school fees, help is at hand. Our article on paying school fees from summer 2020 offers five practical tips if paying for school fees is becoming problematic for you and/or your ex.


Concerned about keeping children at private school after divorce?

Call us to arrange your one-hour reduced fee consultation on payment of school fees both during and after separation. Continuity is key, so acting now rather than when the autumn fees invoice arrives will save you and your children stress and worry over the summer holidays.