I know it’s very exciting if you receive your first offer of a school or nursery place after fretting about oversubscribed London schools for a couple of years, but today I really need to caution my readers about accepting offer letters if you haven’t done your research or read the terms and conditions closely. I wish I had written this post half a year ago and spread the word earlier, but I truly wasn’t aware of the scale of the problem. But in recent months, from conversations with close friends, readers and clients, I’ve noticed there is an increasing number of people who accept offers on a tentative basis without knowing what the legal implications are.
It is a problem for parents and schools alike. Parents are getting themselves into situations where they become liable for school fees at schools they don’t want their children to attend, and schools have less and less transparency about which parents actually want to send their kids to their school, rather than just keeping their options open for as long as possible. It has become quite common, especially among international parents, to accept places at three or four private schools at the same time. Perhaps because many parents work in finance, they see this as a way of buying a cheap option, and some think a £500, £1,000 or £2,000 deposit is a small price to pay in order to have an additional six months to make a decision on school places.
There are some problems with this approach already. For one, schools that have seen too many parents jump off at the last minute keep raising their deposits and asking for them earlier and earlier, which has hurt many of the other parents who are actually serious about the school. In addition, parents are blocking places that families on the waiting list might be very keen on, but at some point, if you are stuck on the waiting list, you are forced to accept your second choice offers, and when you then get your first choice offer at the last minute, it may be too late or you will lose your deposit at the second choice school.
One common problem is that non-selective schools that offer places by date of registration want to lock in families early, usually 12 months but sometimes even 18 months before the start date, so many people are forced to accept a place at a non-selective school and then wait for the outcome of 4+ assessments at selective schools, which tends to happen around 8 months before the start date only. There are actually ways around this, if you talk to the schools openly. It depends on the school, but my daughter received an offer from a non-selective school a year before entry, asking for a £2,000 deposit. Instead of accepting it, I wrote the school a kind letter saying that I was very much interested in the place, but that our first choice was a selective school nearby, and that I would be able to commit to the place for sure only in January. I asked to kindly keep me on the waiting list, and they did. I am not suggesting this will work at Wetherby or Pembridge Hall (although it is worth a try), but it will probably work for many other non-selective schools. In the end, as much as schools like to pocket deposits, the registrars actually want to know who on their list is really serious about a place and they will appreciate the honesty, as it makes their job of filling places easier.
Losing your deposit is, however, only a small part of the problem when you accept multiple places. Far more important is the issue of tuition fees that you will have to pay eventually. I was shocked to find out that many parents who sign offer letters do not actually understand when they become liable for school fees. Two friends of mine recently told me they did not have to worry about the fees because they had not received an invoice yet, so they still had time to make up their minds. I had to break the news that you can be legally liable for paying the school fees regardless of the fact that you have or have not received the invoice, it is irrelevant. It is like the British citizenship, you can be a British citizen by birth no matter if you have applied for a passport or not. In this case, at most schools you become liable for school fees at the beginning of the term preceding your entry to the school (i.e. the beginning of summer term or mid April if your child is starting in September of that year). So you become liable for the autumn term fees the first day of the summer term. This is because at least one term’s notice is required when you want to withdraw your place, and unfortunately many people don’t really know what that means. They think they can cancel their place in June because they haven’t received an invoice yet, but it’s not the case. If you haven’t cancelled your place by April, you have to pay the autumn term’s fees. Of course, you can beg the school for mercy, and some are old school and will indeed show flexibility, but more and more schools are run as businesses and might well hire lawyers as soon as parents don’t pay up. Even schools registered as charities might do this, so don’t count on mercy.
What I strongly recommend is studying the terms of conditions of each school when you sign the offer letter. If you don’t want to read the ten or fifteen pages, at the very least read the section titled “Notice of withdrawal” or “Withdrawal of a place”. It is perhaps no coincidence that the summer term starts before you know the outcome of state school allocations, so most people are forced to accept a private school place and become liable for fees before they know if they got a place at the outstanding state primary school next door. What are you to do in such a case? Most prep school contracts actually contain a clause about “preliminary notice of withdrawal”, so you can send the school a letter just before the beginning of summer term notifying that you might have to withdraw your child (preliminary notice) subject to information that you will receive in two weeks time, and then if you confirm your withdrawal at the agreed date two weeks into the summer term, they would usually let you off the hook. It’s important to check this before hand though, as the terms and conditions usually state that the Head of the school has discretion either way.
I hope this makes the implications of accepting offer letters clearer to many of you, and I will make sure to promote this post towards the end of this year to protect the next year’s families from the pitfalls of private school offers!