As average day fees reach £14,000, private schools are almost beyond the reach of middle-class families. The worst economic downturn since the 1930s is seeing British households cut back on spending. And, for some, that appears to include paying for a private education for their children. Figures published by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) show that last year there was a tiny increase of 0.1 per cent in numbers attending the 1,200 institutions it represents, but this was the result of a rise in overseas students admitted. British pupil numbers in private schools actually fell, as they have every year since 2008, when the current crisis began.
The logic of the market is that plummeting demand is addressed by slashing prices. Yet the cost of a private education continues to rise – by 4.5 per cent in 2011, according to the ISC survey; up to an average £13,800 a year for day places, and £26,000 for boarders. Dr Martin Stephen, High Master at St Paul’s in west London until last year and now working with a commercial education provider, warns that private schools are increasingly putting themselves beyond the reach of middle-class parents and returning to the Victorian pattern of being the preserve of the “super-rich”.
“I am the son of a Yorkshire GP who could afford to send three of his sons to independent schools,” he says. “He simply wouldn’t be able to do it now, out of his taxed income, even taking into account how much GPs’ salaries have increased of late.”
So does this add up to a crisis in Britain’s independent schools, which currently educate about 500,000 pupils, roughly 7 per cent of the four to 18-year-olds in education? Absolutely not, says Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council. “We can be proud of the fact that in so many areas of education, we set the highest standards and act as a force for good both in the country as a whole and for the individual pupils who are fortunate enough to attend our schools.”
He highlights, in particular, an increase in means-tested bursaries on offer – worth £284.7 million, up 9.4 per cent on last year – which go to 8 per cent of pupils at independent schools.
Dr Stephen, though, questions such optimism. “The crucial figure to look at is the rise in private school fees as against average incomes in the UK over the past 20 years,” he says. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that between 1992 and 2008 the average annual fees charged by independent day schools (adjusted for inflation) rose by 83 per cent, and by boarding schools by 65 per cent. Over the same period, household earnings went up by only 30 per cent.
A gap has opened that is now being exposed by the financial downturn. “There is, to be fair, evidence that independent schools are now reining in fees in response to falling numbers,” says Dr Stephen, “but that may be a case of too little, too late.”
Teaching unions have reported that the recession has resulted in one private school closing down every fortnight, unable to attract sufficient pupils to make ends meet. Others have merged, and some – such as Grindon Hall in Sunderland – have ditched their fee‑paying status to become a state-funded “free school”.
Everywhere, efforts are being made to keep costs down so as to make schools as attractive as possible. Some – including Fernhill in Glasgow and Gosfield School, at Braintree in Essex – have gone so far as to advertise discounted fees. The latter, a small co-educational day school, is funding the cuts by increasing pupil numbers.
However, low pupil-to-teacher ratios are one of the principal reasons many parents opt for independent schools rather than local state alternatives. Smaller class sizes allow greater one-to-one attention and make for better public examination results. So increasing pupil numbers in order to reduce fees risks putting parents off.
“The level of fees is clearly important,” says Helen Fraser, the former boss of Penguin Books who became chief executive of the 140-year-old Girls’ Day School Trust in 2010. “What we try very hard to do in our schools around the country is offer good value. We want to be seen as the John Lewis of independent schools. So we are careful to manage our costs. Because we have 26 schools, we can, for example, buy gas and IT centrally at better rates. But there are some things we cannot compromise.”
One factor that has traditionally persuaded parents to part with £13,800 a year per child is the belief that independent schools offer better facilities than state comprehensives both for lessons, and for extra-curricular activities that develop the “whole person”. So those willing to pay £150,000 over five years for a place at Eton do so in the knowledge that their offspring will have the run of exceptional drama facilities (including a full-time designer, a carpenter, a manager and a part-time wardrobe mistress), which have produced a galaxy of stars including Tom Hiddleston (War Horse), Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn), Dominic West (The Wire) and Damian Lewis (Homeland). You may not be able to buy success, but money seems to help.
Outdoing each other to offer outstanding facilities can, however, have unforeseen consequences in times of recession, according to Dr Stephen. “If you look at how much fees have risen in recent decades,” he says, “you have to ask where all that extra money has gone. Since 95 per cent of independent schools are charities, a lot of it has been invested back into the school in facilities such as indoor heated swimming pools, theatres, and other new buildings. Money may be tighter now, but these still have to be maintained, insured and heated. That is extremely costly.”
There are many reasons why parents choose private education, often at the cost of making economies in other areas of their lives. As well as the pupil-teacher ratios and the swimming pools, another key factor is results. Though they field just under 7 per cent of candidates in GCSE examinations, independent schools produce 26 per cent of the A* grades.
But the biggest single draw in selecting a private school, according to an Institute for Fiscal Studies report, is if you have been to one yourself: “If it was good enough for me, then I owe it to my son/daughter to give them the same chance.” The products of independent schools are three times more likely to send their offspring to one than the rest of the population.
Even those who hanker back to salad days at their alma mater, though, will now think twice, given the rising cost. Halifax Financial Services has produced research that shows that from 2003-2008 the number of professions in which average gross earnings were sufficient to afford school fees fell from 30 to 18. The bankers and lawyers were still queuing up, but architects, police officers, teachers and pharmacists had melted away.
That rather generalised conclusion was reached on the basis that no one would be willing to pay more than a quarter of their salary on school fees. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many parents will stretch themselves much further, even taking on additional part-time work to give their children what they see as the best start in life.
However, Melissa Benn, founder of the Local Schools Network, which champions state education, believes that they may be making such sacrifices unnecessarily. “There have been radical improvements in the past decade in state schools thanks to increased funding and increased commitment from government. Why pay fees when your children can be educated as part of their local community, and get great results? Surely that way everyone is a winner.”
Her case will be strengthened if the reforms planned by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, succeed in delivering greater parental choice through free schools and academies. “The worst enemy of independent schools is a successful state education system,” agrees Dr Stephen. “I know plenty of people with children who have looked at the current high level of school fees, have seen how well the best state schools are now performing in examinations, and have chosen to spend their money on moving house into the right catchment area for a first-rate comprehensive or grammar, rather than on paying for a private education.
“They tend to do that when their children are small, so the damaging effect may not have trickled down yet into the admissions figures for independent schools. But at the very least, the alarm bells should be ringing.”