Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Extended school closures & the issue of school fee discounts is an extremely hot topic at the moment, with online discussions, surveys, petitions & articles flying around the parent community - not just here in Malaysia, but around the world.
In this opinion piece, we dig a bit deeper into the thorny issue of extended school closures & the discounts that many parents have demanded. It's certainly a contentious issue, and we don't expect everyone to agree with the information and views we're putting forth here - but felt it was a big enough issue to warrant writing about in some depth.
Before we begin, please note that our focus here is solely on international schools here in Malaysia rather than on private or public schools.
Only 10% discount? We want 50% off school fees, now!
Many of you may have seen (or even signed!) this petition in which parents demand 50% off private & international school fees and the Ministry of Education’s immediate intervention. At the time of writing, this petition had just over 30,000 signatures.
But here’s the thing.
Up to 85% of an international schools budget is spent on staffing costs.
This doesn’t mean just salaries for teachers, but on costs related to support staff including coaches, learning support and EAL specialists, classroom assistants, admin staff, and so on. And the more expat teachers a school hires, the higher this percentage is (as the more expensive their teachers are to hire & retain).
This means that the vast majority of the school fees you pay do not actually go towards the school's facilities, resources, electricity, maintenance, and so on - they go towards staff. So, even though schools are closed, international schools are not saving a huge amount of money at this time because their staffing costs - up to 85% of their outgoings - have remained unchanged.
And this is the reason that most schools have offered discounts of around 10-15%. This reflects the savings they are making on bills, maintenance, etc. Offering anything more would mean having to make some pretty grim decisions in order to fund the higher fee discounts.
Here are a few options that international school leaders & boards are faced with. As you will see, none are great.
1. Offer bigger discounts, but sustain significant losses to do so.
While some international schools might have enough reserves to sustain losses for a few months, not all do. Smaller and newer schools in particular would really struggle here. There is a risk, therefore, that the school wouldn’t survive & not be able to open in the new academic year.
2. Offer bigger discounts, but make staff redundant in order to reduce operating costs.
If schools make teachers redundant - emotional trauma & huge legal issues aside - this means potentially having to re-open in the new academic year with insufficient teachers. Not having enough teachers in August is a huge problem, for all sorts of reasons. Learning quality, first and foremost. Health & safety, for another (international schools operate with very strict student-teacher ratios). And it’s important to be aware that hiring good teachers at the best of times is difficult; trying to do so in August, when the international teacher recruitment season closed months before, would be almost impossible.
3. Cut staff salaries and use the money to pay for the discounts.
It is true that some international schools around the world have resorted to cutting staff salaries - and I’ve certainly had some parents in Malaysia expecting this to happen here, too. The most common line is “We are all experiencing pay cuts, why shouldn’t teachers too?” But here’s the issue: cut teacher salaries, and you face a real risk of losing staff. Lose staff now…and how on earth will they have enough teachers for August? (See point 2, above).
And of course, school leaders can’t just think about the situation now. They have to plan many, many months (usually years) ahead and balance any discounts/relief they offer now with the quality of education they will be able to offer in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years' time.
There is simply no way of offering big discounts to parents now without it having a significant impact on the school in the future. That means that there is no easy win here and certainly no immediate, 'quick-fix' solution.
Okay, but what about bus, clubs & lunch fees?
It is totally reasonable and fair to expect that bus and meal fees should be completely refunded, given that this is a service that providers cannot possibly offer during this period. If not refunded, we believe that parent accounts should be credited for use when international schools re-open.
With regard to clubs & sports - again, we would expect these to be refunded or credit for future use - unless the lesson/coaching can be provided online (a few spring to mind, like music, art and chess) and the parents decide they are happy to pay for online lessons instead. Parents should be given the choice.
But online learning: this is not what we paid for!
The transition from classroom to 100% remote learning has been a bumpy road for everyone - students, teachers, parents. We have all had to adjust very quickly to a new way of learning and immediately become home schooling experts. For most, it's not been easy....to say the least!
Here at SchoolSelect, we've heard a lot of feedback (both good & bad) across two main areas: online learning quality (how good it is) and quantity (how much their child has received). Let's look briefly at each in turn.
Online Learning - Quality
The quality of what is being offered to students remotely has certainly varied from school to school.
What exactly is offered depends on many factors, including:
How ‘tech savvy’ the school was before closure;
How many online platforms/systems were already being used (it's difficult to suddenly introduce new ones successfully, after schools have closed)
How confident students already were with online learning before the sudden closures in mid March.
At the very least, most schools are using a platform like Google Classroom, Class Dojo, SeeSaw, Tapestry or ILD (Early Years) to share learning and communicate with parents. Many are still offering online CCAs and clubs, parent conferences, optional workshops & other enrichment activities for their communities, too.
In fact, we recently polled the parents in our Facebook group and we heartened to see that a very solid majority of parents (77%) said that they were ‘very satisfied overall’ with the online learning their children were being given (20% said ‘somewhat satisfied’ and only 3% declared themselves ‘dissatisfied’).
Online Learning - Quantity
Almost all international schools here in Malaysia have implemented a mix of synchronous (live) and asynchronous (homework) activities. The timetables/systems they have worked out, and how much daily learning different year levels/grades are given, is generally based on numerous factors including:
Feedback from their school communities;
Consideration of their own school contexts & what will work;
The need to balance student wellbeing and academic achievement;
Guidance from other international schools in places like China and Hong Kong (where they have been closed a lot longer & had more time to figure it out).
The ratio of live vs. homework activities tends to depend on the age of the child, with older (Secondary) students getting much more 'live' teaching time each day. If you have a younger child, they will almost certainly be getting less contact hours than when they were in school. But if you think about a school day - how much time is taken up by break times, lunchtimes, and moving between lessons?
It’s also important to recognise that no matter what is offered, some parents will be happy, others won’t. Some want 8 hours of live Zoom lessons, every day. Others are happy with a bit of reading, writing and maths. No matter what schools put in place, they're not going to be able to please everyone. What matters, to our minds at least, is that they are putting the students first and doing their best.
Finally, many schools we have spoken with wish parents were aware how hard their teachers are still working. Many are working longer hours than they did previously, due to the labour-intensive nature of preparing remote learning opportunities. Indeed, the feedback we get from teachers is that the whole teaching process - planning, delivery & feedback - is far more time consuming than ‘traditional’ classroom practice.
So, yes, the type of education our children are getting looks & feels very different - but it is not a service that has suddenly stopped. It is just being offered in a different format.
We would also add -and I'm sure many parents would agree - that the vast majority of international schools are doing their very best to support their students and families in what is a very, very challenging and uncertain time.
The Bottom Line
If you're a parent in Malaysia with a child at an international school, it is pretty unlikely you will be offered more than 10-15% off your child’s international school fees, for all of the reasons given above. (At least not at this point in time. If schools have to stay closed beyond the summer due to an extended CMCO, then we imagine international schools will have to make some tough decisions in order to offer more financial relief to parents).
If you are in genuine financial hardship - if you are facing job losses, salary cuts or anything else that is going to potentially impact your ability to pay your child/ren's school fees - then please, please reach out to your child/ren’s international school privately.
In almost every case we’ve heard of, international schools have done their utmost to offer payment flexibility & support on a case-by-case basis. They are unlikely to share these arrangements publicy, but it doesn't mean they can't happen in cases of real need. Please do reach out.
So when we come back to the question, 'Should parents get fee discounts?' during periods of extended school closure - our answer is yes.
But these discounts need to be managed in a way that balances the short-term needs of the school community with the long term survival of the school community - and that is no mean feat.