Private schools may shut as parents turn to state sector

Holidays are cancelled and second homes sold to pay fees at institutions with uncertain futures

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The recession is making almost a third of private school parents rethink plans to pay for education, according to a major survey published today.

A poll of just over 2,000 parents reveals that 29 per cent are either scrapping plans to send children to private schools or reducing the amount of money they will spend. Such an exodus would have a devastating effect on the private sector, prompting school closures. The sector educates around 600,000 children from 300,000 families – the number is higher once pre-school nurseries are taken into account.

The poll, carried out by Schroders bank, surveyed parents who spend money on private education for children of all ages. Experts from the independent sector conceded yesterday that some parents were facing financial difficulties, although their numbers had fallen by a marginal 0.2 per cent in an annual census. The true picture for this academic year will not emerge until next April's census.

There is already evidence, though, that parents are being more selective about how many years their children spend in private schools.

"I think it's the parents who are contemplating private education who are holding back on a decision," said Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association. "They may be being more selective in terms of the key stages they may put their children in for private education. Some believe the basic skills are all important, introducing their children to private education at nursery level or the early years; others think the most important thing is entrance to university."

There is evidence that parents are pulling children out of private schools in the sixth form, especially if they have a successful state provision locally, such as Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, which sends around 60 pupils to Oxbridge every year. It is the only state institution among the five leading suppliers of Oxbridge undergraduates.

Pupil numbers appear to be holding up or even marginally increasing in the South-east, but northern areas have seen a 0.5 per cent drop in the past year.

Many parents are either forgoing holidays or putting second homes on the market to keep their children in private schools.

The worry for the sector is that – with the economic recovery so slow – more parents may reach breaking point, triggering school closures. Even household names such as Eton or Harrow – often charging the largest fees – may be hit if parents decide to go for a cheaper option.

Today's survey reveals that 33 per cent of parents believe the money they have set aside will not be enough. Almost a quarter of independent financial advisers say a significant proportion of their clients are relying on an inheritance to pay fees.

The economic pressures on parents has seen a slowing down in the rate of school fee rises with experts predicting they will go up by between 2 and 3 per cent next year – which is below the rate of inflation – compared with rises of around 8 per cent a few years ago.

Another chilling prospect for parents is the rise in university tuition fees, which will increase to up to £9,000 a year from next September.

Last night a parents' leader called for government aid to help parents soothe the effects of the recession. "The Government should be looking at giving parents some degree of help to send their children to good private schools," said Margaret Morrissey of the Parents Outloud lobby. "They should receive the amount of money a child would cost in state education in terms of a voucher.

She called on Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education not to be "frightened you'll be called elitist, because it isn't about elitism – it's about fairness. If we could afford to put more children into private schools, we wouldn't have so many problems with behaviour because it works."