Covid 19 coronavirus, expats fuel demand for private schools, rolls close early

One of New Zealand’s top private schools has closed next year’s roll early for the first time in decades, while another has a “huge” waiting list and no space until 2024.

Covid-19 appears to have fuelled the demand, with some of Auckland’s private schools claiming Kiwis who can afford the price tag are seeking a better lockdown experience for their kids.

High-flying returning expats are also forking out tens of thousands for the private schooling they’re used to abroad, while international families extending job contracts are adding to roll growth, schools say.

King’s College in Ōtāhuhu has closed its 2022 roll early for the first time in more than 25 years, with just a handful of places for Year 9s left.

Principal Simon Lamb said King’s had been “overwhelmed with enrolment interest”, which he said was mainly because of how well the school delivered distance learning during lockdown.

Pinehurst School on Auckland’s North Shore also had its highest demand ever on the back of three to four years of growth, marketing manager Nicki Williams said. That was despite losing out on about 70 international students who normally would have enrolled for 2021 in the school of 1000 students.

There were waiting lists across the junior school years, although there was still a little space in Years 11-13, Williams said. She believed Pinehurst’s growth could be because of”word of mouth” from parents appreciative of the school’s online programme.

However Deidre Shea, president of the Secondary Principals’ Association of NZ, cautioned that without hard data it was impossible to say whether private schools had really coped better with lockdowns.

She had not heard that message from other schools, and Covid had meant many state schools were now were better resourced than before as more students were supplied with devices.

“I think there were lots of different experiences and I’d be really reluctant to generalise.”

Some private schools spoken to by the Herald also pointed to returning expats filling roll spaces.

About 50,000 Kiwis have reportedly returned to New Zealand during the pandemic although it’s not clear where they’ve enrolled their kids. Shea said state school rolls had not seen a bump, but it was possible an increase in expats returning could have been balanced out by the drop in international students.

But independent, or private, schools were definitely seeing more expats, ACG Sunderland principal Nathan Villars said. His school in Henderson had seen about 15 per cent roll growth since the start of Covid – it would normally be about 10 per cent. The current roll was 570.

Up to 15 returning expat families had signed up since the pandemic began, he said. In early 2020 they were coming from the UK and Europe, some fleeing Covid and others hoping to buy a house before prices skyrocketed. More recent returnees were from Asia and the Middle East.

Villars believed ACG offering the Cambridge qualification appealed to parents who might be transferred overseas – that qualification could easily move countries with their child.

International students had remained at ACG Sunderland in high numbers during the pandemic, Villars said. The school had 55 international students when Covid hit and, of those, 40 were still enrolled. By comparison, a colleague at a state school had started with 50 international students but was down to just four or five, he said.

At Diocesan School for Girls, growth had been strong since the Global Financial Crisis but Covid had had a definite impact, principal Heather McRae said.

Diocesan often enrolled families who were in New Zealand on short-term for movies and other projects. Because of Covid, those families had never left.

“New Zealand is seen as a good, safe place for families, rather than go back to the [United] States or Europe where things weren’t too good,” McRae said.

Expat Kiwis had also been returning and enrolling at Diocesan – mostly from Europe and the US, but some from Asia. The school’s roll is currently about 1600 – about 50 more than they would like. It was full for 2023, and there was a “huge” waiting list of 80 to 90 girls for the junior school, McRae said.

“It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a shame we can’t cater for everyone.”

Private schooling is an anomaly in New Zealand. As of last year, fewer than 4 per cent of Kiwi kids were at private schools and just over 11 per cent at integrated schools. Annual fees can be in the mid $20,000s.

But McRae said many returning expats were used to paying for a private education.

“They’re happy to pay for it, they’ve generally done well.”

Diocesan Year 11 student Taylah Wood moved here from a private Anglican school in Perth last September when her dad took up a construction company role in New Zealand.

Mum Jenny told the Herald New Zealand was beautiful and “a great country to be in” during Covid. Diocesan was also a big selling point – it’s Taylah’s second stint at the school and was a non-negotiable for her.

Wood praised Diocesan’s handling of lockdown, which was helped by McRae’s prior experience running a secondary school in Beijing during the Sars outbreak. The move to online learning had been seamless, she said.

“The school has been exceptional. It’s not cheap but neither was our school in Perth – it just ticks all the boxes…it’s on a world-class level.”

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