The Boarding Schools’ Association is organising flights for Chinese students to help them return to their UK schools in an effort to tackle travel disruption caused by Covid-19.
Caroline Nixon, the BSA’s international director, took 70 students last month and placed them on two existing scheduled flights, both from Qingdao in China to Heathrow airport in the UK. She confirmed that the schools paid for the flights, and then invoiced the students’ parents.
“70 students have got back to school who otherwise would not have done”
Nixon told The PIE News that BSA may continue to organise further flights for international students after term starts and schools know exactly how many students have not returned.
“Both UUKi and BSA were trying to organise some flights because the Chinese government has said there can only be one flight in and out of China per week per airline.
“These flights are being cancelled at very short notice if there’s any kind of issue,” she said.
“So we’ve been having talks all through the summer about how to find a solution.
Nixon said she spoke to Li Guoqiang, the First secretary, Education Section at the Chinese embassy.
Guoqiang put Nixon in touch with China Travel, a travel agent based in London which is a joint venture with CITS, the state-owned enterprise.
“We had initially thought we might charter our own flight but China Travel convinced me that an existing scheduled flight was less likely to be cancelled as it would not need local government agreement in China.
“It was all very last minute but 70 students have got back to school who otherwise would not have done,” she said.
Many independent schools rely on international students for fee income, and to date, some eight schools have closed or stopped offering boarding at least partially due to Covid-19, according to Nixon.
“The fear is that there may be more because of the lack of international revenue that some schools depend on,” she said.
These eight schools include Ashdown House School, Bellerbys College Cambridge, Bristol International Sixth Form College (meant to open September 2020, now not opening till September 2021), Chelsea Independent College, Roedean, Moira House School, St John’s International School (stopped boarding Summer 2020), St Mary’s School Shaftesbury and King’s College St Michael’s.
Tom Beardmore-Gray, chief executive of the Cothill trust, of which Ashdown House School is part, said that it was with an “incredibly heavy heart” that the trustees came to the decision to close the school.
“The harsh reality is that the impact of the coronavirus has changed everything. In recent years the Trust has invested heavily in the school, and there has been a relentless drive to keep the school moving forward.
“Given the challenges the sector as a whole is now facing, it is not possible to maintain this support.”
The PIE asked the Department for Education if the government is planning on stepping in to support independent schools in the UK from the general effects of Covid-19, and in the event that international students are unable to reach the country.
A spokesperson for the department said that boarding schools would have been eligible for the business interruption loan support scheme, job retention scheme as well as a scheme that paid sick pay for staff who had to isolate.
Nixon explained that as well as there being challenges around students being able to enter the country, a serious concern for schools is that international parents will not be willing to send their children away from home.
An annual census from the Independent Schools Council found that there are currently 29,446 non-British pupils whose parents live overseas, which represents 5.5% of the total ISC pupil population in 2020.
This number has risen since 2019 when there were 28,910, or 5.4% of total pupils. By far the largest numbers of pupils come from China.
The census showed that there were 10,864 students from mainland China at ISC schools. 8,290 of these students have parents who live overseas.
“It’s really down to reassuring parents and agents that actually it’s safe for children to come back to boarding school in the UK,” said Nixon.
“I have spent a lot of time this summer doing webinars and virtual meetings on Zoom for parents.
“Mainly China and Hong Kong, but also in Germany, just to sort of reassure them and say, look, actually it is safe to come back to the UK. We are dealing with Covid-19,” she added.