The public portrayal of private schools rarely gets beyond the level of Angela Brazil or Frank Richards. It is stuck, obdurately, in the distant past, a world of cold showers, leaky dorms, Latin prep and improbable nicknames - a world plausibly recreated in Channel 4's That'll Teach 'Em. This reality show, set in a mock-up boarding school of the 1950s, actually reflected the experience of many who are currently in positions of power, which perhaps explains why the caricatures persist. As Sir Ian Blair, the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said to a recent gathering of boarding-school heads, his own public-school education was "on the austere side of austere".
The reality, however, is a sector that has changed out of all recognition, replacing corporal punishment and religious discipline with pastoral care and the expressive arts. And the message that private schools are rather nice places to be seems to be getting through. Despite talk of a worldwide recession, last year saw the numbers signing up to fee-paying schools increase for the eighth year in a row, matching the record set in the 1980s - when, incidentally, wallets had been filled by the Lawson boom.
The annual census by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) showed another 1 per cent rise in numbers up to January 2003. In 2002, 580,000 pupils in England were educated at private schools, representing 7.09 per cent of the total school population, up from 6.98 per cent in 2001, and 6.91 per cent in 2000. More remarkable still, the number of children choosing to board rose for the second year running, suggesting that the years of bad publicity brought about by institutional and child-abuse scandals may finally be starting to recede.
The successful marketing of a traditional British education is reaping rewards in Russia, China and the rest of the Far East, from where students are coming in droves. But when parents were asked what they wanted from British public schools, the answers were anything but traditional, according to the ISC and the research firm RSAcademics, who jointly conducted the research. Uniforms and top results scarcely came into it.
Overwhelmingly, they said that their children should have individual attention from teachers in small classes with a polite, civilised atmosphere. League-table rankings were listed as number 33 out of 37 factors, while drama, music, art and sport - the sort of subjects that have been curtailed in many state-sector schools - were felt to be of real significance by a sizeable proportion of the parents. Almost half, 46 per cent, judged it "essential" or "very important" that schools provide good facilities and teaching in these areas.
The same research suggests that 41 per cent of the parents surveyed were "first- time buyers", with no history of private schooling in the family. It is a long way from That'll Teach 'Em, where patronising disciplinarians enforced a regime of physical puritanism and an academic syllabus that rarely travelled beyond the stultifying.
"What motivates most of the parents is not what schools would necessarily expect to find," says Ben Gibbs of RSAcademics. "The most importance was given to individual attention, personal care from the staff, and personal development for the pupils." This is a widely endorsed view. "They wanted schools to be sensitive to their children's individual needs - that's overwhelmingly what they're looking for when they pay all this money," says Dick Davison from the ISC information service.
Gresham's School, in Holt, Norfolk, is a medium-sized school known for having produced WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and, more recently, John Dyson, the inventor. It is also known for a strong system of pastoral care and excellent arts. Academically, the independent sector does very well, and Gresham's is no exception; 43 per cent of A-level entries from private schools result in an "A" grade, compared with 21.5 per cent nationally.
But places such as this, where boarders' parents pay about £6,000 a term, have more to offer than good results. They are often exciting places to be, where the day pupils are happy to stay from 8am to 8pm. Around a dozen drama productions are put on every year, and concerts are given by pupils every week. There are orchestras, chamber groups, wind bands and jazz bands. Professional plays are routinely staged at the school's Auden Theatre. Gresham's also has connections with Erskine Childers, the author of The Riddle of the Sands, and is mounting an exhibition on his life and work.
There are few schools now where a trumpet player or a student artist does not appear somewhere in the prospectus. St Paul's School for Boys, in Hammersmith, west London, has a newly built music centre that is regularly hired by professional performers, often for recordings. It also has a specialist drama block, four floors devoted to the plastic arts, and a gallery for outside exhibitors. St Dunstan's College, on the other side of the capital, is less famous, but it can offer 15 full-scale drama productions a year as well as two orchestras, and several choirs and ensemble groups. Manchester Grammar School has been dismissed as an exam factory in the past, but these days music is so important that it recently offered a composition prize judged by the composer and conductor James MacMillan.
Dr Martin Stephen, the chairman-elect of the HMC (Headmasters' Conference) and high master at Manchester, believes that part of the appeal is that parents feel they can exert some influence by using the private sector, both in their choice of school and in their subsequent involvement. The sense of empowerment, he suggests, is all the stronger given the increasingly centralised nature of the state alternative. "I would say that the link between parents and school has to be one of the main reasons for growth at the moment." Increasingly, decisions on education have been presented as resulting from a political agenda rather than being based on what students, universities or employers actually want. In the private sector, however, what the parents want is listened to very closely. "Parents can have a major impact on the education that their child is receiving. It makes for a very healthy relationship," he says.
Stephen, who will shortly move to London and take over at St Paul's, also suggests that the sector has benefited from the slow changes brought about by the Children Act, which, in setting out proper legal safeguards for children in the care of others, is starting to improve public confidence.
Dulwich College in south London is experiencing pressure on places across the age range with, for example, 120 applicants for 48 admissions at age seven and 315 applicants chasing 90 places at age 11. Graham Able, the master, attributes this, again, to the broad approach to education. "We're producing the sort of all-round education that most parents and students want. It's the fact that we offer good teaching and learning in the classroom and a wide variety of activities outside the classroom." Its small boarding section has become more popular, and the college has recently built eight new rooms to meet the demand.
David Woodhead, the national director of ISC, believes the renewed popularity of boarding is partly the result of heavy investment by schools, which spent £68.5m refurbishing their boarding houses in 2002 alone. There has also been a revolution in the approach to dormitory life. Not only do school bedrooms offer comfort and privacy; it is frequently possible to board for short periods, even one or two nights hotel-style - a development that has helped to break down the institutional reputation.
It is not just senior schools that are doing well. David Hanson, the director of education at the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS), which has 50 prep schools in membership, says: "Most parents want their children to be literate, numerate and IT-aware. But they want more than that. In our schools they find there's art and sport." Academically, he says, there may be an advantage in teaching the separate subjects with specialists rather than the tradition in state primary schools of having the same class-teacher take the lot. "I used to work in a maintained school and my heart goes out to the teacher who's expected to do everything."
He believes that the "first time buyers" identified in the research are surprisingly clued up about what they want, more so than in the past. "The kind of education they want is challenging for the Government. They want creativity and a broad experience for their children. They don't want a narrow Gradgrind curriculum."
Wolverhampton Grammar School is another that can point to a combination of high academic standards with music, drama and sport. But the headmaster, Bernard Trafford, is honest enough to admit that fear of the state system is a motivating factor, too. "I have to accept that often we get them if they haven't got into the state school of their choice. What really seems to scare parents is the second or third choice."
The private-school parents who spoke to RSAcademics seem to have been too polite to list fear of indiscipline and the threat of bullying as major factors in choosing a school (although such factors routinely come out as the top parental concerns, as the Government admits). But when they put "individual pupils' well-being" and "pupils respecting each other" at the head of the list, it may be that they were getting at the same sort of thing.Reuse content