- Business

Private schools furlough staff at taxpayers’ expense

Private schools are furloughing staff under the taxpayer funded Covid-19 scheme even as they demand parents pay 90% of their fees for next term despite lockdown.

News that taxpayer largesse is helping some of the wealthiest schools in the country pay their wage bills may raise further concerns following the row over Premier League football clubs.

Parents contacted the Evening Standard to complain that the UK’s biggest private girls schools group, the Girls’ Day School Trust, was only giving a 10% discount for next term even though schools will probably be closed and staff on furlough.

GDST, which runs 25 private schools including Putney High and Wimbledon High, confirmed it is furloughing staff, largely in transport, catering and “estates management”.

A spokeswoman said: “Like many companies GDST is going to be furloughing staff to ensure our longevity long term.”

However, GDST is not a company in the sense most people would understand.

It is actually a charity, and a wealthy one, with income last year of £258.7 million and luxurious offices in the landmark Bressenden Place office development by Victoria Station.

Like most other private schools, its charitable status means it need pay no corporation tax and qualifies for reduced business rates.

Despite that, it is still eligible for taxpayer-funded furlough cash.

The spokeswoman said some parents were getting more than 10% off fees next term and said operational savings it was making from Covid-19 would go into its hardship fund to help parents pay fees.

Teachers at other charity-status school groups reported having been furloughed for three weeks, allowing schools to get taxpayer funding for their payroll over the easter holidays.

One said the school would review his furlough in a fortnight when the school knew how many parents had cancelled for the summer term.

Wealthy football clubs such as Liverpool FC were vilified for leaning on the furlough scheme, but private schools say they should not be put in the same bracket.

Neil Roskilly of the Independent Schools Association said many schools were expecting a tough time as parents hit by the economic impact of coronavirus pull their children out.

“There’s this image of private schools being these very well-funded organisations like Eton and Harrow, but the vast majority are nothing like that.

They are having to look hard at their teaching staff and think about such things as furloughing,” he said.

Many are braced for falling fees in the summer term at the same time as having to invest in IT for home learning.

“Schools are doing whatever they can to keep fees down for parents while at the same time costs have not come down at all,” he said.

The impact on private schools is highlighted by the for-profit upmarket Alpha Plus group of schools, which include Prince Harry and William’s £7,700 a term prep school Weatherby.

It has bonds listed on the London Stock Exchange whose value has plummeted from £102 before the covid outbreak to just £61 last month – implying a rising risk of default. They have partially recovered to £77.90.

Alpha Plus, backed by property tycoon John Ritblat, said it was planning to keep teachers on the payroll but added that it may furlough “a limited number”. It said: “We are considering and working through this now.”

He said fees for summer term had been dropped 20%. Those parents who could afford the full 100% were being asked to pay it so the 20% could go towards the fees of those who cannot.

Alpha Plus lost £9.7 million last year after investing heavily in its schools. It brought in £111 million in revenues, largely from fees and accommodation, and got a £650,000 tax credit.

Even before Coronavirus, it had to cut fees at its Falcons School for Boys pre-prep school by 12% and admitted pupil numbers had not grown as much as expected at Falcons School for Girls.