Hundreds of independent schools could face extinction by Christmas due to the effects of coronavirus, Tes has learned.
Insiders say parents are refusing to pay fees at some schools, while in some cases governors are "wrestling" with how much discount should be given for pupils now learning at home.
“There’s been a warning in some quarters that half of independent schools will go bust by Christmas,” a consultant working in the sector told Tes.
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“It’s probably best not to say half – because there could be even more than that. The North of England could become a desert when it comes to independent schools."
When asked by Tes whether the estimate was accurate, Peter Woodroffe, of the Independent Schools Association, which represents 540 schools, said: "I think it's an exaggeration. From our experience, whenever a small school is facing closure, parents will usually step in to help."
But he added: "I suspect we might see between 15 and 20 per cent closing, which is still a lot."
With around 2,300 independent schools across the country, that would mean more than 300 schools becoming extinct by Christmas.
Even before the pandemic, many independent schools were already under severe financial pressure because of the need to pay a rise in contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, which has already forced some smaller schools to close or merge.
Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, said yesterday that schools were "anxious about the future when so much remains uncertain".
"The schools we have spoken to expect to take losses, painful ones," she said.
Private schools can take advantage of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) to pay staff who are temporarily laid off (furloughed).
But heads have warned this may create cash flow problems because schools must pay staff themselves before claiming the money back from the government.
Mr Woodroffe described the scheme as "a bit of a tripwire” because it lasts only 12 weeks.
He added: “In June, schools could be hit with a full wage bill that they can’t claim back, and then it's closure time, so it’s almost a bit of tripwire in that sense.
“But if the furlough scheme could carry on for another three months after that – it would cover schools until September when things would be back to normal.”
He said that some parents were “hugely supportive” of schools but that others were “not able to see the bigger picture and are refusing to pay fees".
The consultant, who did not wish to be identified, said: “Part of the problem is that some schools sent out their bills for next term on the day schools closed [due to coronavirus on March 20] without showing the parents what they were going to do.
“There is an awful lot of work teachers are doing at the moment on things like Zoom and Firefly. A lot of schools are working like billy-o because they want their fees paid next term, but there must be some real nervousness about whether parents will pay the summer term fees.”
The Independent Schools Council said it couldn’t speculate on the extent of damage the pandemic would cause to the independent sector. The Independent Schools' Bursars Association also said it could not speculate.
The Department for Education said that the education secretary had "made clear he will do all he can" to support schools, and will continue to work to address the concerns of the independent sector.