High price of class act

Fees in the independent schools sector are rising, but you can get help to meet the cost
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The Independent Online
AS class sizes mount, and the Government shows no signs of releasing extra money for schools, even the most public-spirited parents are starting to consider private schooling. But they will have to dig deep. Prices are high and rising.

Moores Marr Bradley, an independent financial adviser specialising in school fees, estimates that the average total cost of privately educating three children now aged 5, 3 and under a year, from the age of 9 to 18, could reach more than £300,000.

School fees have risen by around 140 per cent in the past nine years. Isis, the Independent Schools Information Service, attributes this mainly to staff wages and capital costs.

Unsurprisingly, the sector has gone through hard times as a result. While price tolerance was high in the booming 1980s, during the recession financially troubled parents were forced to seek an alternative.

Worst hit have been rural boarding-schools with indifferent academic reputations. The steady decline in boarding pupils since the Second World War has been accelerated by costs: secondary-level fees range between £2,000 and £4,100 a term. The number of boarders has dropped by 22 per cent in seven years. Another factor has been a fall-off in enrolment of children of military personnel abroad. The British, it seems, are losing their enthusiasm for sending children away, especially at primary level.

But demand for urban day-school places is more buoyant, and is likely to grow as Britain recovers. Anne Feek, managing director of School Fees Insurance Agency, said: "Whenever there are difficulties in the maintained sector, there is growth in the independent one.''

School-fees levels are not necessarily a guide to performance. David Woodhead, director of Isis, points to good value from former direct-grant schools, such as Manchester Grammar and Bradford Grammar. Their fees, at £1,070 and £1,330 a term respectively, are lower than those of other independent day-schools, as the pupil-teacher ratio is higher. But stringent selection means only the brightest are admitted. These children, needless to say, get excellent results. Independent schools in the North and Scotland are also cheaper than elsewhere, reflecting lower costs.

Fee-paying schools are not solely the province of the rich. In a recent survey, 41 per cent of families with children at such schools had an income of £40,000 or under and 14 per cent less than £20,000 per annum.

Many families find ways of spreading the pain by embarking on savings schemes, through such advisers as SFIA and Moores Marr Bradley.

Some are eligible for help from the government-assisted places scheme and through scholarships and bursaries offered by the schools. There are 33,000 places available through the government scheme; grants are strictly means-tested. The entire cost is paid for households with less than £9,500 a year gross income, and there is a declining scale of help for those with up to £20,000 gross income. Parents can apply through eligible schools.

Independent schools have boosted scholarship and bursary places this year to 83,000 to counteract the recession. They are awarded according to a variety of criteria and the amount also varies. Educational trusts also help 4,000 of the most needy each year. Isis has a list.

q Isis: 0171 630 8793; Moores Marr Bradley: 01908 662288; SFIA: 01628 533133.