Middle classes 'priced out of independent education'

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Middle-class professionals can no longer afford to send their children to independent schools because their salaries have failed to keep up with dramatic rises in school fees, according to new research.

Architects, scientists, police officers and engineers are among the professions that have been priced out of private education over the past five years, the study by Halifax Financial Services found.

Independent school fees rose by an average of 43 per cent between 2000 and 2005, to £9,777 a year. Average earnings rose by only 24 per cent over the same period, the analysis found.

Last year's average fee rise of 5.7 per cent was the lowest since 1999, but it was still more than double inflation, which stands at 2.5 per cent.

Fifty prestigious institutions, including Eton, Harrow and Westminster, were fined last year for operating a fee-fixing cartel after an inquiry by the Office of Fair Trading.

Independent schools say that they have had to put up fees because of increases in their costs, including teachers' pay, pensions, energy prices and insurance.

Martin Ellis, chief economist at Halifax, said: "The average worker in a number of occupations, including pharmacists, engineers and journalists, can no longer afford private education for their offspring."

The research was based on the premise that workers could not afford to spend more than 25 per cent of their gross earnings on one child's school fees. Using this criterion to measure affordability, it found that only nine occupations out of 39 in the study could afford private education in 2005 compared to 19 in 2000.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents nearly 1,300 schools teaching 80 per cent of pupils in the private sector, condemned the research as "muddled and misleading".

Jonathan Shephard, general secretary of the ISC, pointed out that most families have two earners. He said that two newly qualified police constables, on a basic (out of London) salary of £22,107 each, can afford fees at more than 950 ISC schools.