We should be proud of how prep schools have responded to the toughest of times

Posted on 16th Mar 2021 in Prep Schools Guide, Independent Schools, Independent Education

Writing to the foreword to our 2021 Preparatory Schools guide, Christopher King, CEO of IAPS, looks at the impact of the pandemic on the sector and why there are reasons to be optimistic about the future.

To describe the time since March 2020 as challenging for IAPS, and indeed all independent schools, would be a gross understatement of the situation during the intervening period to today. The last academic year had begun for many with optimism and something of a spring in the step. It is true that one could not claim there was universal optimism and strength in pupil recruitment, but many schools were reporting strong roles and lots of interest from prospective parents. The wind seemed to be in the sails of prep and linked junior schools and then it all stopped in March as the first lockdown arrived, our schools were forced to close, and a dark cloud descended on the sector.

The doom merchants fed the media with predictions of the collapse of the prep school world. It did not happen. In fact, six member schools closed, citing Covid-19 as at least part of the cause but, in truth, they were ailing before the coronavirus outbreak and its occurrence was the last straw that broke their proverbial back. This number represents less than 1% of IAPS membership. I have to say, though, there is no complacency within the association for what is now true is that more schools who were just the right side of pupil recruitment and financial solvency are now in a much more fragile situation. There will be some more closures in the near future and Covid-19 has not finished with the sector yet.

What is universally true is that the sector has shown reliance and a time-honoured ability to adapt to changed, and largely adverse, conditions. Online, remote learning was developed in very quick order and, after a few weeks of relative hiatus, the offer our schools made to parents can be hailed as a great achievement. In some schools, even when the opportunity presented it to return to school before the end of the summer term, the parents preferred, in the circumstances, for online tuition to continue for older children. It was a massive learning curve for schools, but the staff quickly became familiar and confident with whatever was their schools chosen platform be it Zoom, Teams or similar.

Many schools offered fee discounts, some of which in retrospect seem quite generous, and fears that no parent would pay the summer term fee were proven to be too pessimistic as schools reported in most cases 95% of the expected fee had been paid by parents. The number of disputes with parents over fees, though no doubt draining in time spent responding to them, were mercifully few in number. In fact, the overwhelming majority of parents showed great loyalty to their chosen school, understanding the circumstances, and showing they wanted to support their children’s school at this time. Looking at the prep and junior school sector as a whole pupil numbers stayed strong with some schools declaring they had record levels of demand for places; although, of course, for every ’winner’ there was likely to be a corresponding ‘loser’.

It wasn’t just online lessons that schools learnt to offer as we saw the emergence of the virtual school tour and virtual open day. If one starts to look for positives from the experience during lockdown, it is how schools have learnt to polish their online messaging to current and prospective parents and no doubt there will be a legacy here which will aid schools in the future.

The relationship with staff within our schools has been strained in a way not previously imagined. Some have been furloughed which is a term not in common usage before March 2020 and that experience has been difficult for the staff who have experienced it. The fact is that the scheme might well prove to be a financial lifesaver for many schools and, when the reasons have been communicated openly with staff, they have understood and accepted the reality of this time. Lockdown may have demonstrated that remote learning is possible; it also underlined the fact that there is no better place for children than being in school, being taught together with their peers and the rest of the school community. The importance of the teachers and support staff has similarly been underlined and it is that return to a full dynamic school community that we all crave.

On the subject of community, for some IAPS member schools, lockdown, be it partial or full, shone a light on the way they serve their local community. IAPS member school reported that they had large numbers of key workers attending school and, in some cases, this meant hundreds of children of all ages and not just more latterly when the definition of such employees was widened. Some schools made PPE kit when it was in short supply and others have offered their facilities as vaccination centres. It is again to be hoped there will be a positive outcome for relationships between the school and their local setting as a result.

IAPS schools have shown remarkable determination to get through and past all this coronavirus has thrown at us. Financially the sector has taken a hit and it will take some time to recover the situation. It will be helped in doing so by the way in which it has performed over the past year for though to some it may seem counter-intuitive our schools often do well in adverse times. In such circumstances, as we face a significant economic recession, there is a flight to quality and certainly our schools are premium education establishments. Parents, if they are able, are often more inclined to turn in our direction when they see their children potentially growing up in an adverse economic environment and they want to give their children the best possible start in life. There are reasons therefore to be optimistic for the future of our sector.

The heads and senior leaders in our schools have been placed under huge pressure this past year. Anyone new to headship will probably feel, with justification, they have gained 10 years’ experience in 12 months. There is light emerging from the darkness nonetheless and, if one allows oneself to be a cup half full person, there is reason to believe the sector will emerge stronger and well placed to grasp the return to normality which we all hope will come sooner rather than later.

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2021, which you can view here: