Boarding schools miss their Harry Potter magic

The Harry Potter effect - widely credited for boosting boarding school places in Britain's independent schools for the past two years - is over.

Figures published yesterday show a dip in the number of boarding school pupils for the first time in three years. The numbers are down by nearly 1,000 - or 1.4 per cent.

David Woodhead, national director of the Independent Schools Council, said: "I think we've probably seen the peak of Harry's influence."

He acknowledged that the J K Rowling books had been the main reason behind the boom and added that many youngsters were still keen on a boarding school education. He said the problem was rising costs.

Yesterday's official census of the country's independent schools, which include boarding schools, showed fees had risen by 9.6 per cent in the past year, with more than 50 schools now charging £20,000 or more a year for a place. Overall, the growth in pupil numbers, which has continued for the past seven years, has slowed. This year's figure of 508,027 pupils (7.1 per cent of the total school population) marks only a 0.1 per cent rise on 2003.

Meanwhile, Britain's independent schools have offered to allow the Conservative Party to use its parent "passports" at top public schools. The Tories say they will, if elected, give parents a "passport" (or voucher) equal to the cost of a child's state education, which they can then use at a school of their choice.

It will only be valid if the fees are the same as the cost of state education, ruling out schools such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester. Martin Stephen, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents boys' independent schools, said they would offer bursaries to cover the rest of the fee.