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Parents concerned over school fees payments for summer 2020

LGFL Director Anne Leiper examines the implications of COVID-19 on the payment and future affordability of UK school fees.

For many separating and divorced parents, one of the biggest concerns is how to pay the school fees - and who covers the cost. The COVID crisis has inevitably added to this concern, as one of more parents may have lost their main source of income, or have taken a cut in income to protect their own business. As the nation looks to an uncertain economic future, the stress of financial uncertainty may lead to parents reassessing the viability of private education.

 

Protecting school fees in divorce

In our popular article on how to protect school fees , we highlighted various ways to ensure fees are paid through and beyond the divorce process. 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.

However, it’s important that a court will not view private school fees as a “necessity”. Now more than ever, judges are likely to consider one party’s reluctance in committing to private school fees, particularly if only one parent is responsible for the fees.

 

Summer school fee discounts during closure

The issue now, of course, is that children are currently not actually at school, yet private schools want the summer term fees paid. As a parent, you will have a contract with your private school, and that contract usually includes the requirement for payment of school fees by a particular date.

Almost all schools will be providing extensive online teaching and resources to ensure continuity in your child’s education, and may have done so since Easter. So there is educational activity that needs to be paid for, but not other daily costs such as catering.

As a result, many private schools have already offered a substantial reduction on summer term fees, ranging between 10% and 50%. Others have chosen not to. Some have gone for a range of options, including deferred payments, or payments in installments. Some schools are asking parents who can afford to pay the full fees to do so, and the school will use any additional income to establish a hardship fund. Schools with associated charities may also be able to help pay fees in cases of genuine need.

When can children go back to school?

On Monday 11 May, the government published a phased recovery strategy. Step Two includes a phased reopening of school from June 1 for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children in England. (In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, it seems unlikely that schools will reopen before September.) This is to allow these age groups to have “maximum time with their teachers” before the summer holidays.

For older children:

“Secondary schools and further education colleges should also prepare to begin some face to face contact with Year 10 and 12 pupils who have key exams next year, in support of their continued remote, home learning. The Government’s ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible, though this will be kept under review.”

In England, class sizes will be reduced to just 15 pupils and each class will stay together for the entire school day. Schools will be expected to initiate one way systems for corridors, stagger break and lunch times, and different times for starting and finishing the school day. The UK government has stated that no parents will be fined if they choose not to return their child to school before the summer holidays.

 

Will all schools reopen?

Reports suggest that some smaller private schools face the threat of closure if they do not receive their regular schools fees. They will have furloughed staff to pay and buildings and facilities to maintain. Schools may have had to invest heavily in new technologies and equipment for teachers, and spend money rapidly in order to achieve online education in a matter of days rather than weeks or months.

As an article in The Telegraph says:

“Schools are trying to strike a balance between keeping parents onside and keeping the schools afloat. Some are unlikely to offer any discount on fees at all, while others may offer refunds on services they are no longer providing such as meals or coaches. … In all cases the core cost of tuition is highly unlikely to be refunded, as most schools are teaching pupils via online classes.”

Summer school fees: beyond the budget

So, what should you do if paying for school fees is becoming problematic for you and/or your ex?

1. Contact the school for a discount

You may be surprised at the level of help they are willing to offer. According to the Financial Times:

“Many private schools, including richer institutions with endowments and freehold property such as Eton, are offering discounts of 30 per cent or more, as well as financial aid, extended credit and future fee freezes.”

This may push school fees back into your ‘affordable’ range, and you may not need to take action.

If your school has not offered a discount, contact the school and ask for one. It could be as simple as that. If not, contact other parents and get together; parental pressure on the owners of Alpha Plus Group schools resulted in a 20% discount.

2. Ask about bursaries and deferred payments

Many of our clients have successfully applied for bursaries, fee postponements and staged payments whilst they are going through a divorce. Schools are therefore well accustomed to such requests, and opening that dialogue early can help avoid panic calls later.

As Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council says:

“Schools absolutely understand why parents are asking questions about fees, and the difficulty we are all experiencing adjusting to the current situation, balancing work, online education and wellbeing.”

For more information, see this Good School Guide article on scholarships and bursaries.

3. Check exactly how the school fees are currently paid

Any financial settlement or school fees order that includes school fees will include details of exactly how they are to be paid. The liability to pay for school fees is normally in joint names, so there is joint liability for the full amount of any outstanding fees. It’s important to check because if your ex is paying all or part, and they default or go over their credit card limit, you will be liable for all of the fees. Equally, you don’t want your child to lose their place at school through not knowing the financial position of your ex or that fees are not being paid.

4. Contact your ex

This may be difficult, but it is important you know how they are coping and how they view future financial commitments. If you are actively co-parenting, this may be relatively straightforward. If communications are difficult, we can draft a formal letter if required. Avoiding the subject is unlikely to be beneficial.

5. Check your Child Maintenance Service assessment

It’s important to remember that child maintenance is separate to payment of school fees. If, however, you use some of your child maintenance money to pay school fees yourself, any missed payments or reductions will affect you.

The CMS calculate the amount of child maintenance payable using uses a person’s taxable gross annual income. If the assessment was not completed with full financial disclosure, CMS applies a default rate, and you may not be receiving the correct amount.

Similarly there may not have been provision in your old financial order for annual disclosure of a P60, something we always advocate. So, you may be receiving child maintenance on a lesser, outdated salary. Do remember that sometimes a reassessment can actually lead to the payment going down, so it is important to take proper advice in order to make a measured decision.

 

Social distancing in private schools

Looking forward to the challenges of on-going social distancing, private schools may be in a better position to open early due to their smaller class sizes, and to use sports halls and other facilities as classrooms to maintain proper social distancing.

However, education leaders suggest it will not be a case of “schooling as usual”. As Scotland's education secretary, John Swinney told the BBC:

"There are a range of options that could be pursued around different groupings of pupils that could return to school for a limited period of the normal educational week in schools. But what I'm absolutely certain about is the idea that we could in some stage in the near future bring the entire school population back to schools is inconceivable. We are in discussion with our partners from associations to work out how best we can plan for the presumption of formal schooling.”

 

Act now on summer school fees invoices

So, if you haven’t already done so, now is the time to act:

  • Call your school
  • Ask about discounts
  • Request staggered or postponed payments

 

Concerned that your ex may not pay the school fees?

Call us for professional advice. There are ways to impose Orders through the courts, but they are not currently a priority for the already overstretched court system. As experienced family lawyers, we have decades of experience in helping separated parents resolve issues without the need for court, including collaborative law and mediation and child-centred correspondence to help you resolve the issue.

Contact us to book a 1 hour online consultation, including 30 minutes free. (For qualifying clients, T&Cs apply).