Parents go private despite the cut in state class sizes

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The Independent Online

A growing number of parents are sending their five-year-olds to private schools, despite the Government's drive to improve state primary education.

Ministers have reduced class sizes for children aged five to seven and insisted on more rigorous teaching of the three Rs but figures released by independent schools yesterday suggest some parents remain unconvinced. The figures, from the Independent Schools Information Service (Isis), show the number of five-year-olds in private schools rose by 6 per cent last year compared with an increase of 0.8 per cent for the sector as a whole.

Independent school heads are divided about the reasons. Some believe parents choose private schools to escape an increasingly "Gradgrind" curriculum in state schools. Other heads say parents are still choosing fee-paying education because they believe their children will receive a better grounding in the basics, despite the Government's introduction of literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools.

Richard Tovey, head of Tockington Manor, Bristol and chairman of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, said classes in prep schools were still considerably smaller than those in state infant schools, where a maximum of 30 has been introduced .

He said some parents wanted the extra opportunities in sport, drama and music that private schools offered. "They want schools which are concerned about what is going on outside the classroom as well as inside."

But John Wade, head of Gateway School, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire and chairman of the Independent Schools Association, said: "Parents we show round the school are not interested in information technology or sports facilities. They are just interested in how well we do in the three Rs."

The figures show an increase in the total number of pupils in independent schools for the fifth year in succession, though they still educate only 7 per cent of all pupils. Numbers are going up even in schools that lost assisted places when the Government abolished the scheme, which subsidised bright pupils from poor homes.

However, the end of the scheme is forcing fee-paying schools to become more socially exclusive. Last year the proportion of pupils recruited from state primaries, which stood at 34.1 per cent before the scheme was abolished, fell to 29.9 per cent.

David Woodhead, national Isis director, said: "The resilience of schools adjusting to the loss of assisted places is encouraging, but it is clear that it is producing an unwelcome change in the social background of pupils in these schools."

The number of boarders continues to decline, down by more than 2 per cent, though the number of day pupils choosing to board occasionally has risen sharply in response to demand by pupils and from parents who are both working.