Parents contemplating school bills have often found them difficult to fathom. Increases 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 employer teachers’ pension increases have added significantly to costs. Schools must also maintain buildings and facilities and absorb increases in the costs of books, materials and utilities. Even schools with endowments and trust fund investments 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 academic results. 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, has never been greater, particularly as universities have had their share of financial cuts and are more competitive, and for many careers a second degree now has to be seriously considered.
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 also 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 from £125,000 (or possibly half this in a state boarding school) to more than £200,000. In boarding schools, on average, about 55 per cent of that amount will be staff costs – good staff are after all the most valuable resource in any school. After that, about 18 per cent goes on premises costs – by their very nature, boarding schools have a lot of buildings that need ongoing maintenance. The next biggest categories of cost (all typically around 5 per cent of the total) are teaching resources, food and utility costs. After adding the various other cost categories such as IT, laundry, medical, professional charges, and general expenses, together with the cost of scholarships and bursaries, 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. Location also helps 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. That said, staff costs will inevitably be higher for schools in the south-east of England.
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.
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