Closure of schools – not really! Reflections on day one from an Independent School Head’s perspective

 

I very much hope that the Government will recognise the contribution of Independent Schools as we look to do our part in supporting the country during these unprecedented times. On this first day of physical closure my staff are working hard to ensure that our virtual doors remain open to our pupils. Our term is due to end on Wednesday and we will then reflect upon these first efforts; we are under no illusion that this will be a steep learning curve but I know that my excellent staff are up for the challenge and we will always look to utilise every resource at our disposal.

Already I am receiving e-mails from a large number of concerned parents about fees for next term. There is no easy answer here and the reality is that like most businesses much of our expenditure is fixed. Salaries make up a massive part of any Independent School’s expenditure from income (anywhere between 65%-85%) and whilst parents have been quick to point out the Government’s support to businesses of paying up to 80% of salaries (to a maximum of £2500) to workers who are put on furlough, the reality is that teachers cannot be put on furlough because they will still be delivering their lessons and marking work as ever, albeit through virtual platforms. If staff are put on furlough, parents have to recognise that there will then be no education because staff either remain employed or they are put on furlough. At this point in time, my understanding is that the Government are not offering to subsidise ongoing salaries, though I am happy to be corrected. Our expenditure at the moment if anything is going up because we are having to invest further in computers and IT support. Whilst we will look to do all that we can to support parents at this time, I hope they can also recognise our hands are tied to some extent because without the fees we would simply be forced to close. Very few independent schools have large reserves – there are the Etons and Harrows of the world but please believe me when I say that they really are the minority of Independent schools, the vast majority of which exist on a term by term basis. If and when many of the Independent schools are forced to close their doors permanently, as I fear will be the case, children will have nowhere but the State schools to return to; the pressure on those excellent schools will continue to grow with ever larger class sizes and overstretched teachers and the education of the children will suffer for it. I sincerely hope the public will begin to appreciate the service that the much maligned Independent sector offers by alleviating this strain on the public finances and education of our children and that the sacrifices of parents to educate their children in our schools will not go unrecognised. Support from the government to help the independent sector survive is going to be crucial at this time. Even allowing us to be treated in the same way as the State sector and allowing us the dispensation that they receive on the employers’ pension contributions would be a massive help and would immediately enable us to return several hundred pounds back to the parents. Supporting us would not be supporting the privileged few, it would be supporting every child for whom we want the best education available, whether it be in an Independent school or a State school.

By way of further context, there are in excess of 650,000 children being educated in the Independent sector, many on significant bursaries. If these pupils were foisted onto the State sector, you need to consider that it would most likely break our educational system which is already incredibly fragile. Whilst the politicians and many of the public decry those parents who choose to educate their children privately, perhaps they could acknowledge that these same parents continue to pay the same taxes as everyone else, 12% of which is allocated to the education sector from which they derive no benefit but are meanwhile supplementing the education of all those who choose not to go to an Independent school. Perhaps we could thank the Independent sector for this rather than constantly seek to criticise it.

On behalf of all within my profession, I hope that the general public can recognise that expectations being placed on teachers have not lessened, quite the contrary. They are now having to learn to deliver lessons in a completely different way and produce online resources that can stimulate the pupils’ attention whilst the lesson is being taught remotely. Preparation time has subsequently soared and marking of work will remain the same – this is not an easy lot for teachers right now.

The expectations on admin teams have also rocketed. The DfE require new forms to be completed on a daily basis, calls to families have to be made when the children do not log onto their lessons to check that all is okay – this is all a mammoth undertaking.

Whilst everyone else is being told to remain at home, although it is indeed possible for many of the teachers to now teach remotely, that is not true for all of the staff. Schools are closed but not really. The children of key workers still come in and even though it may be small numbers it nevertheless means that cleaning staff need to be employed to keep the school thoroughly clean, maintenance still has to happen, key members of the admin team need to be in to respond to enquiries, the Senior staff and Safeguarding Lead have to be present and, to help put in place a programme for the children left in our care, additional colleagues are volunteering to support the school as it stays open.

I can’t speak for other schools but during this time we do not charge our key worker parents for their children staying with us. We are not currently receiving anything for doing this from the Government. At this stage we are not asking for anything because we feel we have a moral duty to support those who are themselves putting so much at risk for us but please don’t overlook that we are being required to make ourselves vulnerable in the process by leaving our homes to play our part. Many key workers will themselves be very vulnerable to this virus by virtue of the amazing roles they are performing and the possibility that they may bring back the virus into their homes and then unwittingly pass it to their children means that teachers are very much on the front line when we end up looking after those children.

My staff are also on their last legs. This has been an extraordinary term. I hope we can get a break at some point but failing that, a bit of recognition and support would go a long way to keeping us going.

In these uncertain times it is so important that we provide some routine and structure for the pupils when they need it most and at the same time we can continue to facilitate healthy interaction between the pupils. Left to their own devices, what will they be doing – gaming, social media? When the children are directly in our care we look to caution and educate them about how these are used but now the onus will fall on parents to really help us with these challenges. I have always talked with parents about the importance of collaboration in the education of their children and now that is more important than ever.