David Woodhead, director of the Independent Schools Information Service (Isis), announced in its latest annual census that few institutions were 'proving as resistant as independent schools to the effects of Britain's longest and deepest recession since the 1930s'. Yet he also admitted that parents often asked why fees rose 'by a substantially greater amount than inflation'.
The answer, he said, lay 'in the labour- and capital-intensive nature of education' which applied to the maintained as well as the independent sector. The growth in maintained school costs was similar to the rises in average independent school fees, he argued.
All schools spend vast amounts of money on staff, buildings and equipment. That is the standard argument used to justify the rate of education inflation, always higher than that of normal inflation. After six successive increases of more than 10 per cent, independent schools tried to curb rises in fees this year - yet they still went up by an average of about 7.5 per cent, compared to an August inflation rate this year of 3.9 per cent.
The schools tread a difficult path. Many see fee restraint as the only way to avoid losing current pupils and prospective customers. Yet they are reluctant to reduce expenditure on staff and facilities, which they consider to be two of the main reasons parents choose the private sector in the first place.
A survey conducted by Mori five years ago showed that the overriding advantage that parents felt independent schools had over state schools was their small class size.
According to Isis, the ratio of pupils to teachers in the independent sector is currently 10.9:1, slightly lower than last year. That compares with 15.55:1 in secondary schools and 22.2:1 in primary schools in the maintained sector at the end of last year.
Dick Davison, spokesman for Isis, said that if independent schools wanted to cut fees, getting rid of staff or not replacing departing teachers was one of the few possibilities open to them. 'But one of the main reasons why parents choose independent schools is the favourable pupil-to-teacher ratio and the extra- curricular activities they are able to offer. Schools will start to lose that advantage if they cut staff.'
All schools, Mr Davison says, realise they have to make economies. But the implication of the rising-fees argument is that, to retain their distinctive advantage over state schools, independents inevitably become relatively more expensive than other personal investments. In which case, there must surely come a point when rising prices start to turn parents away - particularly if state schools improve.
Some schools are cutting back dramatically on staff, and others have closed because of falling pupil numbers at the start of this term. Boarding schools - particularly small, rural ones - have been worst hit. While the number of pupils at independent day schools has continued to rise steadily, boarding places have fallen by 10,000 in four years.
Ian Stranack, the bursar of Roedean school in East Sussex, said it was certainly a time for severe restraint. 'We would not put fees up more than we have to, but we are tied to the teachers' increases,' he said. Boarding fees at Roedean rose by 8.5 per cent this year from pounds 3,580 a term to pounds 3,885.
Harrow, one of the most expensive schools in the country, now charges pounds 3,975 per term for boarders compared to pounds 3,725 last year, a rise of 6.7 per cent. Nicholas Bomford, the head, said it was 'bending over backwards' to help those struggling with fees. He was confident, however, that most parents would continue to meet fees. 'Those who have set their hearts on sending their child to an independent school will make enormous sacrifices before being driven to the conclusion that they cannot continue to pay.'
Millfield school in Somerset raised its fees from pounds 3,535 to pounds 3,940 a term for boarders this year. Christopher Martin, the head, said the large increase was justified by the low pupil- staff ratio - 7.5:1.
Donald Caskie, chair of the Bursars' Association, said fee increases next year were likely to be kept right down - well below 7 per cent - reflecting restraint in the public sector.
'We really do not have a lot of choice. There is not a lot of room for manoeuvre - savings in areas such as heat and light would be quite small. A favourite area in which to cut back is maintenance, but that is short-sighted. You can find yourself facing a bigger bill in the long run.'
His school, Blundell's in Devon, raised its boarding fees by pounds 250 a term to pounds 3,500 this year. There had been no staff cuts, but the school was looking 'very carefully' at whether to replace retiring staff. 'We are not bulging at the seams with pupils,' he said. 'And neither is anybody else.'
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