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Dispute with Private School Fees

If your child’s school is closed or can’t provide the levels of education and care they promised, can you ask for a refund on their school fees?

If you send your children to a private school or college, you have entered into a contract.  As with all contracts, the agreement will be based on terms and conditions.  In this case the terms and conditions will set out what the parents should expect from the school and what the school expects in return.

As the terms directly impacts on someone one of the parties will have an enormous emotional connection to - their children - disputes regularly flare up. 

Under more usual circumstances the dispute is likely to involve the quality of the education, care or facilities the school is proving not reaching the expected standards or a disagreement over the way a child has been treated or disciplined.  However, since the COVID 19 pandemic the majority of disputes between parents and independent schools have been linked to fees. 

More specifically they will be linked to the parents’ belief that while the school is closed and the promised services can’t be provided, fees should not be payable.

From a legal perspective that’s understandable.  If the school is closed due to the coronavirus it can neither teach nor house a child and it can’t provide any of the wider extracurricular activities.  In very general terms, these are the three things a parent is paying for.

Surely this has to be considered a breach of contract? 

Moreover, if the school reopens with either a revolving timetable that will see different classes coming in at different times to control the contact pupils have with each other or with reduced capacity due to teaching or support staff being on furlough, can they really be seen to be honouring their side of the contract?

When schools were forced to close at the end of March Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council told the FT that this would be a “hugely difficult time for everyone” and urged parents to “bear with their schools” while the policies within each school’s contracts were clarified. 

Her position of course comes as no surprise.  As with many small businesses, independent schools have very limited cash reserves so repaying fees could have very dire consequences.  The only thing is, one year’s school fees can be as high as £45,000 for boarding schools and £25,000 a year for ‘day’ schools in London so parents are arguably well within their rights to be asking for a reduction in fees to cover the period during which the school couldn’t provide the agreed level of service.  And, even if the school argues it has provided ‘virtual’ teaching that could still be considered to be a drop in service.  

Traditionally schools have made it difficult for parents to progress a complaint.   Unlike a dispute with a retailer or a leisure or hospitality business, you can’t just cite the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and wait for them to respond.  Most private schools have staggered complaints procedure which usually requires a meeting with the head teacher and the chair of the governors, something the current lockdown also prevents us from doing.

However, given there is a very strong legal argument that there has been a breach of contract and that the breach should entitle you to make a claim, we would suggest the following steps:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the school’s complaint policies so that your approach is made in accordance with them. This makes it impossible for the school to dismiss or ignore your claim.
  1. Check the dates. There is a time limit for making a claim for a breach of contract and although initiating the complaints procedure will extend that timeframe, you need to be sure that extension won’t affect your claim.
  1. Check the terms of your contract to see if there are any clauses that refer to what will be expected with regards to fees if service is disrupted for reasons out of the school’s control. If there is such a clause, this does not mean you shouldn’t pursue your claim as Richard Howlett, Selachii Legal Managing Director explains:

“It definitely is worth checking the terms of the contract carefully because it appears even when the contract is frustrated by something totally unexpected like the current coronavirus pandemic, a clause stating that parents will be expected to pay the school fees is unlikely to stand up in court as it could very well be viewed as unjust enrichment.”

Once you have all of that information you can make a final decision on whether or not you want to ask for the school fees in question to be discounted or repaid.  Once you’ve made that decision we’d suggest you discuss your case with an experienced litigator who understands how to navigate the very particular complaints procedures used by independent schools.

With any type of dispute, a success resolution will be dependent on your tactics, your timings and your approach.  If you don’t get yours right at the start, the dispute can become protracted and expensive and with so many other things for both sides to worry about at the moment, it is in everyone’s interest to do everything they can to reach a fast and amicable solution.

If you would like to discuss how you can reclaim or receive a discount on your children’s school fees while there schools are closed or failing to meet the agreed level of education and care, please call us today on 020 7792 5649 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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