16 December, 2015
When you think of consumer rights protection an educational setting doesn't immediately spring to mind, with the media spotlight tending to fall on major retailers such as supermarkets. Schools are, however, service providers, and as sellers of services independent schools are particularly vulnerable to consumer challenge. Fee paying schools therefore need to be acutely aware of the demands set by the new Consumer Rights Act 2015 (CRA), which came into force on 1st October 2015.
For independent schools, the contractual relationship that is most likely to fall under the ambit of the CRA is the "parent contract", which sets out amongst other things, the school's commitment to provide suitable education and the parent's obligations to pay the fees. Moreover, marketing materials and even verbal statements by staff about the school's services will also be treated as part of the contract. Indeed, anything bought in the school shop or on its website also falls within the remit of the CRA.
As was the case under the old law, unfair terms contained in contracts will be unenforceable. For a term to be fair it must be "transparent" (i.e. legible, and expressed in plain and intelligible language) and "prominent", which requires the term to be brought to a consumer's attention in such a way that the average consumer would be aware of.
One of the main updates in the CRA is the introduction of additional remedies. Parents now have the right to repeat performance - so if the school has failed to provide a service properly it could be compelled to deliver it again. If this is not possible (for example it may not be practical to repeat a year's worth of poorly delivered maths lessons!), a parent would be entitled to a reduction or refund of the fees they have paid, calculated by looking at the actual fees paid versus the value of the service provided.
Educational service providers, and independent schools in particular, are therefore advised to review their contractual documentation and marketing materials to ensure that they are accurate, up to date, and consistent with the service the school provides. In order to ensure the staff do not relay incorrect information to parents at open events they should be fully appraised on the risks of providing misleading information, as it may be the case that many staff do not realise that the same consumer protections apply to parents as supermarket shoppers.
If you have any questions about how the Consumer Rights Act 2015 affects educational providers or would like assistance on producing terms and conditions or any other commercial matter, please do not hesitate to contact John Pickervance at John Pickervance or 01254 222365