When parents default

  • 19th June 2024

Steven Murray provides a scenario on how to handle parent trying to avoid paying fees


It is a tale you will have heard many times before: a parent removes their child without notice and seeks to complain about the service received from your school to avoid paying the fees.

The bursar and head will be on the front line dealing with these issues, and there are important strategies you can deploy when the vital lifeblood of your school, its cash flow, is jeopardised.

This article focuses on the common fee issues that can arise before admission and after the pupil has started, before analysing how to deal with them.


It ought to be simple: ‘no payment – no place’. However, there’s an increasing propensity of parents with children entering at Year 7 to hedge their bets between a place at an independent and one at a state/grammar school. A parent accepts the place offered at your school, pays the deposit, but following allocation day on 1 March, seeks to withdraw their child.

While the deposit will be forfeited, it will not be sufficient to replace the loss of income from that family for the next five to seven years. So what can you do?

Strategies include:

  • Revise your admissions policy – create a reserve list of potential pupils who could be offered a place in the event of a withdrawal to help mitigate the loss. However, there is no guarantee that the reservists will be willing to accept an offer from your school after allocation day, so you could still be left with an empty seat come September.
  • Increase the size of the deposit – an enhanced deposit for incoming Year 7 pupils could provide an increased disincentive to withdrawing. Setting it too high, however, may dissuade parents from applying at all.
  • Alter the sequence of payments on or near acceptance – if the deadline is close to or after allocation day, and you still have places to fill, this approach may be more relaxed, but requiring payment of the first term’s fees on or before allocation day will ensure that child turns up in September. Again, there’s a risk that the outlay of a term’s fees six months before the start of term could put some parents off. This could be mitigated by creating a short-term instalment plan which creates the liability for the full amount on acceptance, but allows it to be discharged before the end of summer term. This way, if they try to withdraw, they are still liable for the first term’s fees.
  • Check your contracts – ensure the clauses in the admission form and parent contract are consistent and have been brought to the parent’s attention in a clear and unambiguous way. It is also worth ensuring that any ancillary documents (the prospectus, parent handbook etc) are not referred to in a way that elevates such document to a contractual status.
  • Be truthful – avoid making claims in marketing literature that are inaccurate. If you claim that your class sizes do not exceed 18 pupils, do not take on 24. There’s a danger that if representations made to parents could be deemed false, the parent may try to rescind the contract and recover monies paid.
  • Assess whether the parents have the financial stability to fund the child’s place – this does not have to be a ‘means test’, but identifying if they may choose an alternative place at a state/grammar school should be borne in mind before offering a place. Also, identifying property owned by the parents in the jurisdiction that could be used to secure payments of fees gives greater peace of mind should the worst happen.

During provision of education

Assuming there has been no fundamental failure in the educational services provided, a fee dispute will usually only arise because of a change in the parent’s circumstances. They may have divorced or lost a job. As this will have an impact on the pupil, there could be an associated downturn in his or her performance at school, which a parent may seek to rely upon as being a failure of your school.

Obviously, such circumstances need to be handled sensitively. Here are some strategies that should be considered:

  • Keep to the contract or formally vary it. It is acceptable and reasonable to adapt the approach to fit the circumstances, but where that involves contradicting the terms of the parent contract, extreme care must be taken. For example, if you are willing to extend time for payment or rely solely on one of the parents for payments, there ought to be a written variation of the parent contract, agreed by all parties to the original. That variation might be permanent or temporary but must be in writing so that it can be referred to later.
  • A court order in a matrimonial dispute cannot dictate a change to the parent contract unless the school was a party to those proceedings. Therefore, if the court makes a school fees payments order, that does not alter the joint and several liability of each parent who signed the admission form and this should be made clear to both parents upon receipt of such an order. If the school is minded to vary the contract then the strategy above should be adopted.
  • Excluding a child for non-payment is a difficult decision to make, but you should enforce that term of the parent contract as consistently as possible. Any divergence in how the exclusion clause is applied could lead to criticism with connotations of discrimination:
  • Start swiftly – on the day after the first payment was missed, the parents should be reminded of the consequences of a failure to pay.
  • Be clear – state the date and time of payments.
  • Be sure – the banks are not infallible, so payments can go awry. But it is relatively easy for the parent to provide proof that the transaction has been actioned. You will need to verify it has not arrived in the school’s system before taking action.
  • Be firm – an exclusion just before GCSE or A-level exams has the potential to be damaging for the pupil, but remember it is the parent that has created that risk, not the school. If your school is minded to support the pupil, any temporary concession should be recorded in writing (as a variation of the contract) with the parent accepting liability for the missing payments, preferably providing security for the payments in the interim.
  • Occasionally, bullying is used to justify termination without adequate notice. To mitigate against such allegations, it is imperative to ensure your school’s anti-bullying policy is consistently complied with, any issues that amount to bullying being accurately recorded and followed up. A parent will obviously place the welfare of their child above the need to pay fees, so your response to such an allegation should be tempered accordingly (perhaps even refraining from mentioning the fees in the same correspondence that deals with the allegation). Give appropriate consideration to the issue, demonstrate how it has been appropriately investigated and engage as positively as possible with the parents.
  • Finally, should a parent refer to a failure to deal appropriately with their child’s learning disability (dyslexia or autism spectrum disorder, for example) as justification to terminate the parent contract, the head and bursar will need to be satisfied that:
  • Any condition has been properly diagnosed (it is not your school’s responsibility to diagnose, but if there are reasons to be concerned, appropriately qualified guidance should be sought).
  • The school’s action plan to adapt to the child’s needs has been implemented, was appropriate, and supported by the staff assigned to that child.
  • If the parent had raised any issue earlier, those issues had been dealt with swiftly and to the parent’s satisfaction.
  • The parent’s complaint actually relates to the school’s performance and is not just a manifestation of their disappointment in the child’s performance.

The approaches outlined above are all high level, and each parental complaint connected with a fee issue will need to be addressed on its own facts. However, without robust and enforceable terms, the school would find it difficult responding to any complaint. So make sure your school’s terms and conditions are consistent and do what they need to.

Steven Murray is a senior associate solicitor at law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys.

Steven Murray

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