Blog: Costs hike, Brexit and Covid force boarding school shake-up – TES

State boarding schools are facing “new and distinct challenges” caused by a “collision” of issues, including rising costs, Brexit and changes to working practices after the pandemic, headteachers have warned.

School leaders have told Tes that they are facing high running costs as well as the drop or disappearance of student supply from Hong Kong and from Europe post-Brexit.

Some are adapting their traditional boarding offer to include things like wraparound care and flexible bed and breakfast options to meet what more parents want.

Heads have also warned that because boarding needs to break even, or ideally make a surplus to spend on improvements, there will be an “upwards pressure” on fees.

These concerns are also reflected in the accounts filed by school trusts that run boarding schools, with one warning they would conduct a “full review” of their provision.

Boarding schools say they are receiving increasing numbers of financial support enquiries and bursary applications from parents themselves facing financial challenges amid rising costs.

However, school leaders told Tes that although they will need to adapt to these “headwinds”, they remain “optimistic” they can weather the storm and maintain their boarding provision.

There are around 40 state boarding schools in England – many offering this alongside day provision – with a further handful in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

While some students pay boarding fees, several schools offer some places for free to those with a need to board, including those who have parents that are unable to meet their needs.

Brexit ‘impacting student numbers’

When the UK was a member of the European Union, pupils from member states were allowed to study at UK schools.

But since Brexit, those who did not apply to the EU Settlement Scheme by the summer of 2021 are not allowed to study in the UK without having a licensed student sponsor.

Unlike in the independent sector, state schools are not permitted to be licensed student sponsors, effectively blocking attendance for those pupils, unless they have a British passport.

Morgan Thomas, the headteacher at Royal Alexandra and Albert School, a state boarding school for pupils aged 7-18 in Surrey, said that the school lost a number of European boarders since Brexit, representing “a significant proportion” of its international borders and an “important recruitment segment”.

Helen Cullen, the headteacher at Sexey’s School, a secondary and sixth form co-ed in Somerset, also said her school used to have 25-30 European boarders within the school, which had “largely decreased” after 2016.

Other state boarding schools have also described the negative impact of Brexit on their boarding provision.

Accounts for Hockerill Anglo-European College, a state boarding school in Hertfordshire, warn: “Brexit has impacted student numbers for 2021-22 as we have been unable to recruit students without British passports.”

Burford School in Oxfordshire lists Brexit as a “top four” risk in its recently published accounts: “Risk relating to boarding provision is the potential impact of the outcome regarding ‘Brexit’ negotiations and ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and whether this may result in a reduction in student numbers as the current cohort is drawn from both home and overseas markets.”

Bed and breakfast to suit post-pandemic lifestyles

Covid-19 and its long-term effects on lifestyles have also posed a challenge to boarding schools, according to leaders.

Mr Thomas warned that “post-pandemic shifts in parent lifestyles and flexible working patterns have resulted in a change in the traditional need for boarding provision”.

He added: “We have noticed the boarding catchment area reducing substantially over the past two years, with many UK parents now not considering boarding schools further than 150 minutes away.

“Parents now want their children to be at home on weekends and want to be more involved in their school life.”

Ms Cullen added that Sexey’s School has started offering different packages to parents after a change in boarding demand since the pandemic.

She said: “We’re seeing an increased number of parents asking for a different offer to the traditional full-time boarding offer, including part-time boarding, flexi boarding, one-off nights or short chunks of boarding that fit in with their work arrangements.

“We’re also now offering an extended day, where parents can get a package for their children including breakfast and supervision for prep work in the evening.

Ms Cullen added: “There would have been little to no interest in this before the pandemic, but now we’re seeing parents with different working arrangements – for example, they may live locally but go to London a couple of times a week for work. We are trying to be responsive to the needs of our families.”

The accounts for South Westmorland Multi Academy Trust, which runs Dallam School, a day and boarding school in Cumbria, admits that the trust has “continued to invest time and resource in exploring alternative markets for its boarding provision post-Brexit and Covid”, and that “a full review of boarding provision is ongoing”. 

Hong Kong recruitment also a ‘potential risk’

Boarding school heads have also told Tes that attempts to replace European boarders with students from Hong Kong were now proving more difficult. Mr Thomas said that his school had been “fortunate to offset the loss of European boarders to some degree since 2020 due to our recruitment of boarders who hold British National Overseas visas from Hong Kong”.

He warned that the trend was now “decreasing” after waves of families had relocated to the UK from the country.

“The now smaller international market with eligibility for state education will therefore continue to pose a challenge in the coming years”, he added.

In early 2021, the UK opened up an immigration route for British National Overseas visa holders from Hong Kong – and their eligible dependents – with the opportunity to come to the UK to live, study and work on a “pathway to citizenship”.

The government predicts between 258,000 and 322,400 visa holders will come to the UK in the next five years.

Chris Pyle, the head at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, a state day and boarding school in Lancashire, added that “over-dependence” on Hong Kong boarders was “a potential risk” in the longer term as increasing numbers of Hong Kong families have begun moving to the UK.

“We have families who have sent their children to board, and then followed a year or two later to move permanently to the UK as a family”, he added. 

Rising costs are latest ‘challenge’ for schools and parents

Boarding schools have also explained how they face similar financial challenges to other state schools, with the addition of extra costs because of the extra provision they provide.

Robin Fletcher, CEO of the Boarding Schools’ Association, explained that these additional costs include heating boarding houses, paying dedicated boarding staff and managing boarder admissions.

Dr Pyle explained there was a “collision of pressures”, and added: “The main running costs of boarding are in staffing, energy and food. It is not too easy to economise on any of those without having a direct impact on pupils, and inflation is having a very marked impact on our costs.”

But heads explained that although cost pressures were hitting schools, they were also hitting parents that have to pay boarding fees.

Mr Thomas said that in some cases, parents would have to choose a lower priced day school, or free state school place, to “offset the impact of rising costs in other areas of their budget”, and said an increasing number of financial support enquiries and bursary applications his school received was “evidence of this”.

Dr Pyle said that the immediate effect of the cost-of-living crisis may “lag”, and added: “Parents will make sacrifices to keep their child in boarding, but some families considering boarding for the first time will be more cautious.”

Schools completing ‘review’ of boarding offering

Mr Thomas has said his school does not anticipate reducing its provision, and its approach was “to be more agile”.

He said: “Diversifying our boarding provision to offer more flexible boarding models will ensure we have a boarding product that is fit for the changing needs of the modern family, and will hopefully lead to future areas of growth.

“Although there are significant headwinds for our sector, we remain optimistic about the opportunities for growth that recent inflection points present.”

Dr Pyle warned that there would be an “upwards pressure” on fees because boarding “needs to break even or make a surplus to spend on improvements”. 

“Our aim will be to balance that pressure with cost reductions as far as we can”, he added.

Ms Cullen said that fees would “have to go up” with inflation but that Sexey’s was focused on keeping that to as little as possible.

“We’ve got children whose parents work in a range of sectors, including NHS workers and the armed forces, and we need to remain accessible to them,” she said.

Dallam School said in its accounts that its review of boarding would include a “comprehensive marketing plan” to explore new and additional markets, a staffing restructure and a review of charges “apportioned to boarding”.

Its accounts also say that due to “exceptional circumstances” arising from Brexit and Covid, its boarding fund was supported by a transfer of £100,000 from its general unrestricted funds.

Contacted by Tes for comment, it said that it was still developing its strategy at this time.

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