Fees – where do they go?
Parents contemplating school bills have often found them difficult to fathom. Rises in school fees have several causes. First, there are the inevitable salaries and employee benefits for academic and administrative staff. Second, and most recently, national insurance increases and unprecedented employer teachers’ pension increases have added significantly to costs. Teaching has never had a reputation as a well-paid profession and has always struggled to keep up with inflation.
Schools, in most cases, occupy buildings and facilities that have been in operation for some time, and crucial maintenance can no longer be deferred. Also there are continual increases in the costs of books, materials and utilities. Even schools with endowments and trust funds investment have rarely found income matching inflation.
These are all survival factors, but schools wish to maintain and improve standards. This means attracting bright children, good teachers and providing facilities which answer the needs of the decade. At the same time most, but by no means all, schools try to avoid the temptation to expand, to avoid affecting their character and tradition. Schools that have changed to co-education have tested their ability to cope with extra numbers and the changes which accompany them. Pupils require provision for academic interests and recreational and social pursuits. Many schools have maintained numbers by expanding their preparatory and pre-prep intakes.
Parents are looking at a good education as an investment with a high potential long-term return. They place the highest emphasis on academics. Before choosing a school for their child they want to know if individual tutoring is available, the numbers of pupils per class, examination results, positions in the various league tables, and if teachers are easily accessible. They ask about information technology, bullying, health and hygiene, drugs, and the boarding houses.
The importance of A levels and the International Baccalaureate leading to entry to a good university, and a demanding degree course, have never been greater, particularly as universities have had their share of financial cuts, are more competitive, and for many careers a second degree now has to be seriously considered.
A balancing act
Schools will attempt to balance the materialistic with the vocational, pointing out that today’s teenagers may well have 10 to 12 different jobs in their lifetime as they adapt to change and mobility. There is therefore an emphasis on matching the talents of the individual with a wide range of facilities and opportunities. These in turn lead to the provision of recreational facilities, sixth-form centres, information technology units and craft and design centres. Administrative systems need to be technologically up to date. The teaching staff, too, require IT, updated laboratories, resource centres, and equipment and materials to stay ahead in their disciplines. There will be criticism if the minority subjects are not offered, and there must be a proper emphasis on music and art. All this is costly.
The total costs of five years’ boarding education from 13 to 18 could amount to anything between £130,000 and £270,000. In boarding schools, on average, about 55% of that amount will cover salaries and wages, about 10% catering, 10% new or refurbished boarding accommodation, 9.5% repairs and maintenance, 4% books and teaching materials, 3% fuel, 2.6% rates and insurance and 2% recreation. Add scholarships and bursaries, fee assistance, the estate, travel, laundry, professional charges, and general expenses, and there is not much left for further development, which is normally left to fundraising. Schools with endowment income are fortunate, as are those with well-established traditions and reputations. Position helps too, and schools within easy reach of airports, motorways, intercity rail services or parental homes have advantages over those in more remote areas, attractive though their locations may be.
Travel costs to and from school are unavoidable extras not always considered, nor are the costs of uniform, warm clothing, equipment for leisure activities, field trips, holidays and exeats, and everything connected with applications and interviews for the next stage in the education process. The next stage is, of course, in many people’s eyes a degree course, where travel expenses, living expenses, costs of books and equipment and tuition fees have to be funded.
In short it is important for every parent to realise and appreciate the full extent of the investment they are making. Yet an investment it is, and, in retrospect, the most important decision any parent can make on behalf of their children.