Visas blamed for first fall in private pupils in 10 years

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The number of pupils at independent schools has fallen by more than 3,000 this year, the first time the figures have fallen for a decade.

Figures from the Independent Schools Council, which represents most private schools, showed a 0.6 per cent drop from 504,830 to 501,580, despite the lowest fee increase - 5.8 per cent - in 16 years. Independent heads say the drop is due to new visa charges for overseas children. Their numbers fell by 10 per cent to 8,620 this year. The rest of the fall, they believe, was caused by the end of the Conservative government's assisted places scheme. The remaining pupils given subsidised places under the plan left last summer.

The figures also showed a 1.5 per cent decline in the number of pupils boarding, a trend described by the Boarding Schools Association as "disappointing, after rises in boarding numbers in 2002 and 2003". They also showed that - for the first time - there were more girls than boys in independent schools (218,156 compared to 217,730).

Jonathan Shepherd, the general secretary of the ISC, said: "It shows that parents see the education of girls as being of equal importance to those of boys, as they should." Many of the country's best boys' schools have also started admitting girls in the past few years. But among boarders, there are still more boys (39,844) than girls (28,411).

The new visa charges - which can amount to £2,000 over a pupil's school career - are angering heads. Overseas families have to pay £255 for a postal application for a visa and £500 for an application in person. This has to be renewed at ages 8, 13, 16 and 18.

Heads said the charges, which have more than doubled, were putting families off from applying to UK private schools. In addition, the charge for registering with the British Council, essential if schools want help disseminating information about themselves to potential clients abroad, has gone up from £1,495 to £2,999.

Mr Shepherd said: "We would like the Government and the British Council to do something to help rather than hinder our efforts to recruit. For UK plc, we would welcome a bit more joined-up thinking. Making what can be £2,000 in visa charges across a full school career may put people off pursuing a university place in this country.

"The British Council should decide whether it really represents British culture and society and its education, or whether it is just there to make money."

A spokesman for the British Council said its increase was "a very small amount" compared to the total cost of running a private school, and the Home Office said the visa applicant, not the taxpayer, should pay the cost of registering. It wanted the visa service self-financing.

The ISC said its share of the home market for pupils was "holding up". The 0.6 per cent drop in pupil numbers compared to a 1.2 per cent drop in the UK school population. Itwas most marked among primary- and prep school-aged children (two- to six-year-olds and eight- and nine-year-olds - where the size of the cohort nationally is falling.

Numbers also fell in the first two years of secondary schooling and among those taking A-level, where some transfer to state sixth-form colleges as exams approach.