The reality, however, is somewhat different. Although pupil numbers declined between 1992 and 1995, following a period of severe recession and industrial reorganisation, numbers of pupils have started to increase again.
About 80 per cent of young people being independently educated are at schools that are members of the Independent Schools Information Service. Isis conducts an annual census which records that member schools achieved a net increase of almost 3,000 pupils in the year to January 1996. The way in which parents use independent schools, however, is changing. Concealed within the pattern of decline and recovery are marked variations by age and by the balance between day and boarding pupils.
Official statistics for all independent schools show that in 1994 (following four years of overall decline) the total number of pupils was still 5 per cent higher than in 1985. The number of boarders, however, had fallen by almost a quarter over the same period. The statistics also show that the number of pre-preparatory and preparatory pupils (aged two-10) grew by 17 per cent and the numbers of sixth formers grew by more than 7 per cent. On the other hand, there was a fall of almost 6 per cent in pupils aged 11-15.
This fall in boarding numbers led 42 independent schools to close or merge between 1991 and 1994. Most were in rural and coastal areas where lost boarding numbers could not be made up with day pupils from the local area.
There is a continuing need, however, for boarding places and numbers are likely to stabilise around current levels of around 100,000. Boarding pupils come from three main sources: people working overseas, families in which both parents work in professions with irregular hours, and from overseas families who want their children to have a British education.
The contribution made to our balance of trade by the 20,000 foreign students in our independent schools has been largely ignored. It is estimated that their fees bring in pounds 200m a year in hard foreign currency. Some overseas students are also likely to progress to British universities. Moreover, overseas pupil numbers are increasing substantially. Last year, overseas enrolments grew by over 9 per cent.
Why do parents spend large sums on sending their children to independent schools rather than to those in the state sector? Academic excellence is often given as a main reason, but some state schools are now offering comparable results for free.
David Woodhead, the national director of Isis, acknowledges that independent schools face a much tougher and more competitive environment. "With the greater variety of schools in the state sector, particularly the advent of grant-maintained schools, there is much greater potential for stiff competition."
To meet this competition, independent schools are marketing themselves in a "more intensive way". Mr Woodhead explains that "more than half the children now coming into private education are coming from families where neither parent was independently educated".
He argues that independent schools provide the best possible all-round education for a whole variety of different sorts of children.
When Isis asks parents what their particular priorities are, Mr Woodhead says they tend to be things like the overall standard of education, the academic results, the sizes of classes and good discipline.
The independent schools are also instilling skills and qualities increasingly sought by employers - particularly high standards of oral and written English, a responsible attitude to work, and high levels of self-reliance. These are areas in which state schools are not seen to be widely successful. As people are increasingly expected to manage their own work and be responsible for their own career development, the independent experience appears to have growing relevancen