OFT to investigate independent schools

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The Independent Online

Independent schools are being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading amid accusations that they have secretly colluded to fix their fees.

The OFT confirmed yesterday that it had opened an inquiry into claims that dozens of schools, including Eton, Harrow and Westminster, have operated illegal cartels when setting the amounts they charge parents.

The announcement was made after allegations that bursars at Britain's best-known schools had shared sensitive information on future fee levels. Parents are facing substantial rises in school fees this year - some surveys have found that the average rise is 10 per cent, or four times the rate of inflation.

Parents complained that they could not afford to pay the higher fees because many schools set their charges at similar levels. Eton, for example, charges an annual fee of £19,644 while a year at Westminster School would cost £18,864.

Fees have risen steadily over the past two years, according to figures published in the annual Trotman Guide to Independent Schools. Annual boarding fees at Winchester College in Hampshire rose from £16,110 in 2001 to £19,644 this year, while fees for boarders rose from £15,900 to £19,125 at Harrow College and from £15,555 to £18,900 at Marlborough College in Wiltshire.

A team of OFT investigators will now begin questioning headmasters and bursars at the schools.

A spokeswoman for the OFT said: "We have reasonable grounds to suspect a breach of the Competition Act and can confirm that we have launched an investigation into allegations of fixing fees among some schools."

The schools were accused of fixing their fees after evidence emerged that school officials had discussed their plans with their competitors. None of the schools thought there was anything wrong in holding such talks.The maximum penalty for price fixing is five years' imprisonment.