By Ashwin Assomull
School leaders, parents and governments must come together to support one another to ensure that quality education continues this term and for years to come
Now, more so than ever, we are being bombarded with data, perspectives, information (at times misinformation) and opinion on topics ranging from how governments should handle the Covid-19 crisis to how we should manage our children’s education over the coming months.
The sudden move to distance learning has had headmasters, parents and governments scrambling to write the rule book on how to ensure that education and learning does not stop for our children. Schools have had to develop and implement distance learning programmes that would usually take months (if not years of planning) in a matter of days.
Many parents who have traditionally taken a very hands-off approach to their children’s learning have been drafted in to the frontline to support their children’s education and their frustration is very clear to see across WhatsApp chat groups, viral videos and Facebook, the world over.
The discussions are increasingly focused on whether parents - many of whom are facing greater uncertainty on their own employment prospects and incomes - should pay fees for a term where they will likely have no access to the facilities and infrastructure they are paying for, whilst acting as part time teachers themselves.
From Santiago to Singapore, journalists are devoting column inches to this debate with many of them taking a view that parents should be given a significant rebate or pay nothing at all.
As someone who has been fortunate to work with schools, governments and foundations across the globe, I feel it is my duty to share a few perspectives.
Firstly, it is important to understand that schools are largely a fixed cost business, with teacher costs and rent typically accounting for 80-85% of operating costs for any private school. These fixed costs will continue to be incurred throughout the third term.
Teachers are working harder than ever, and retaining experienced teachers is critical to improving outcomes at every school. If parents withhold fees next term or demand discounts, schools (like any other private enterprise) will need to cut costs to balance the books.
An easy place to start is by making older more experienced teachers (who tend to get paid more) redundant, which will affect the quality of education for years to come.
Many parents also believe that schools are flush with funds and have large reserves they can dip into. The reality is that many private schools, (especially the single site, family-operated concerns we see across the world) will find it difficult to stay afloat if fee income falls by more than 20%.
Around 70-80% of private schools across the world are ‘mom n pop’ businesses and play a vital role in the communities they serve.
In many cities with large expatriate population, schools also provide a fast track to developing much needed social networks to families who have recently moved to their new lives. It would be a real shame to see these community assets disappear as a result of this pandemic.
But don’t governments have a part to play?
Authorities have so many sectors to help out during this period, and in many developed markets, private schools are seen as something only for the wealthy so why should they be supported by government funds?
The level of support that governments provide will depend on how important they perceive the private school sector to be for their economies.
For many ‘global cities’ such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai, quality private schools are a critical component of the value proposition to the talent that they are seeking to attract.
Having a healthy school sector is vital for them to remain globally competitive. In addition, these schools are an industry, employing thousands of teachers and support staff as well as contributing to GDP.
Singapore has already stepped into support the private schools sector through a combination of short-term loans, rental waivers and grants to support other costs. In the UK, many schools will benefit from government support packages being extended to private enterprises including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
So, what is the solution?
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet solution or policy that will satisfy parents whilst maintaining school quality and keeping operators solvent.
Governments will have to play their part and provide direction to both parents and operators on how to handle fee payments (just as the Dubai authorities have done recently).
However, the key is for school owners and parents who are under financial strain to come together and agree on how best they support the funding of the term 3 education through a combination of deferred payment plans and fee support.
This should be done on a case by case basis through open and compassionate dialogue between parents and school leaders.
Ashwin Assomull is a Partner at L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice