The cost of private education in the UK increased at its slowest rate on record this year, as demand from Gulf countries surged during the pandemic with parents seeking face-to-face teaching for their children.
Fees at British private schools increased 1.1 per cent in 2021, according to the Independent School Council’s annual census, compared with a 4.1 per cent increase in 2020, with the average annual fee for independent schools now £15,191 ($21,458) for day pupils and £36,000 for boarders.
Sara Sparling, education consultant and director of UK boarding school specialists Anderson Education, said demand for school places from families in the Gulf has risen significantly during the pandemic, with parents wanting to send their children to schools in the UK where they can receive a full-time, face-to-face education.
“We've seen a definite increase in the number of families from the Gulf considering boarding,” Ms Sparling told The National.
“I had an inquiry yesterday from a British expat family in Saudi who said their schools are not going to provide face-to-face teaching until January or February 2022. That will be two years of not going into a classroom, so they're now considering boarding.”
More than 530,000 pupils attend private schools in the UK, with almost 25,000 non-British pupils whose parents are based overseas attending boarding schools, and 644 of those from the Middle East. Separately, almost 8,000 British expatriates send their children to UK boarding schools.
While some UAE schools have offered a combination of home and school learning since the start of the academic year, schools in England faced two further lockdowns following the first shutdown at the start of the pandemic before pupils returned full-time on March 6.
As a result, falling household incomes, international travel bans and school closures made it difficult for private schools to justify fee increases.
“Independent schools have been very sensitive to the Covid situation, so when they switched from face-to-face to online learning last summer, they didn't charge the boarding fee with the tuition fee and many of the schools froze their fees for this academic year because they knew that families are finding it quite tough,” said Ms Sparling.
A total of 868 schools froze or reduced all their fees during the pandemic, the ISC found, with more than £1.1 billion of fee assistance provided this year.
Anderson Education, whose key market is British expats and international families based in the Middle East, hosted its 20th UK Boarding School Exhibition in Dubai in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, at the emirate's Grosvenor House Hotel.
However, it was forced to postpone this year’s event until November due to travel restrictions between the UAE and the UK, instead relying on zoom meetings and online exhibitions to offer advice and guidance for parents looking for school places.
Ms Sparling hopes Britain’s traffic light system for international travel - which currently places the UAE in the red zone and travellers expected to quarantine in hotels on arrival - will change to allow more parents to fly in to view schools.
However, she said many parents are still willing to quarantine because they are considering their child’s education for the next four years.
“Rather than have teenagers home-schooled and not socialising and mixing academically with their peers, as they have been throughout the Gulf countries because of distance learning, once they were in school [in the UK] in a safe bubble with their boarding houses, it was actually a very safe place to be," said Ms Sparling.
One British, Dubai-based mother of four boys, who did not want to be named, sends two of her children aged 16 and 13 to a boarding school in England, while two remain at school in the UAE.
Her British boarding school will increase its fees by 2.5 per cent in the next academic year, despite her children missing large chunks of in-school education due to two lockdowns.
Meanwhile, her children in Dubai, aged seven and 14, have been in the school full-time since September.
"We did get discounts at the British school during the lockdowns. Last term we had 25 per cent off the fees for the weeks they weren't there, but my Dubai-based children have not been off school since returning in September, so they've had far better schooling from that aspect than the UK kids," she said.
Charles Bonas, director of the British Boarding Schools Show, said the UK’s private schools have been praised for the delivery of their home-schooling programmes during the three lockdowns in England.
"There's no question about the way the independent sector delivered the home-schooling programme during the lockdown," Mr Bonas told The National.
“It was generally perceived to be more effective than state schools so that is one of the reasons for the increase [in demand] for private education.”
Last year, the British Boarding Schools Show was forced to cancel its March event when the world plunged into the first lockdown. The company has also postponed its 2021 event at the Sheraton Hotel in Dubai's Mall of the Emirates, the 10th edition of its show, until September.
“We’ve still got a lot of families saying 'can you get us into a school in September'. Extraordinarily England’s gone from being the sick country of Europe last spring and this spring we're almost like a sort of safe haven for Covid”, Mr Bonas said.
He said international parents often jet in and out of the UK to meet up with their children for half-term and weekend breaks, however he expects parents to stay in the country longer to get round travel restrictions.
“Instead of coming in September and dropping off children and coming back for the first weekend, they will stay here for that month,” he said.
The Dubai mother said she will not see her UK-based children for four months due to the red list restrictions, after flying into Britain in February to quarantine with them in an airport hotel after the third English lockdown.
The Department of International Trade has since issued a letter reassuring overseas parents in red list countries that children can spend their quarantine in boarding houses rather than in hotels.
“This ensures that many more students can return to the school environment without delay. Furthermore, we have provided guidance to ensure boarding schools are aware of the arrangements that need to be put in place for quarantine accommodation, transport from the port of entry and testing for those students who are required to quarantine,” the DIT said.
Ms Sparling said most of the schools have 95 per cent of their students back in school this term, with some schools even hiring guesthouses for children to quarantine in.
Looking ahead, Ms Sparling said Anderson Education's next boarding school exhibition will take place in November, with the company forced to limit its exhibitors to 20 schools, from 24 normally, because of social distancing regulations.
“We're up to at least 26 schools so we're having to prioritise them to get representation across the whole of the UK,” said Ms Sparling.