Charterhouse set open a sixth-form day house

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The Independent Online

The grass is dry on the grounds of Charterhouse, the air sweet with the smell of lavender. The old stone scholars' court is silent; school has closed for the summer. In the distance, a cricket match is being played on the rolling fields of Surrey. Things are as they have been for nearly 400 years.

And, far from numbers falling at this venerable private school, it is about to open a new sixth-form day house called Fletcherites with 50 places for boys and girls. Fees are £7,572 a term –a 3 per cent increase on last year. The recession, it seems, has passed Charterhouse by.

At the end of last year, a general downturn in private education was widely expected. But the Independent Schools Council's annual survey found a slight rise in numbers. Charterhouse marketing manager Annette McGivern says demand for places is high. Last year, 150 girls sat the entrance exam for the sixth form, competing for 50 places. Ninety boys competed for only 10 places.

The school began life in 1611. Initially housed in a Carthusian monastery in London, it later moved to Godalming, Surrey and started accepting girls in the sixth form in 1971. The buildings are beautiful. Its chapel, designed by Sir Giles Scott, is the largest war memorial in England with a shiny floor and wooden benches resembling the House of Commons – except, says McGivern, there's no heckling.

Pupils are allocated to one of 11 houses when they join. Fletcherites will become the 12th house, following a conversion of the school's old medical centre. The new house will have its own uniform, housemaster, matron and house tutors. Facilities include studies, changing rooms, showers, common rooms and "butteries", kitchenettes where pupils can make light snacks.

Work begins on the new house in November, and it will take students from September 2010. Many of the parents live close by in Guildford and work in the City. Despite the recession, if a parent is committed to a certain school, says McGivern, they do what they can to keep their child there.

For those who can't afford the fees, there are bursaries. "I believe for schools like this there is a moral obligation to give bursaries," says David Williams, the bursar. Scholarships are being cut from 50 to 10 per cent of the fees. The money saved goes into the pot for bursaries. Any money made from commercial activities – such as scenes from the new St Trinian's film shot here – also goes into the kitty.

Williams opens a cabinet full of files of pupils who couldn't have afforded to attend without financial help. The boarding fees of £9,160 per term are expensive, he agrees. "We are aware of this, and that we may have priced out Mr and Mrs Professional, whereas in a day house the fees are much less."

In the headmaster's study, the Reverend John Witheridge, says: "We knew we could fill a new house because of the demand for sixth-form places. More people are looking at the school this year than ever before. It's quite curious, frankly, especially given our fees."

The reason is "anxiety" about the state sector, he says, and because people are attracted to a progressive sixth-form curriculum. Last September, Charterhouse largely dropped A-levels, because "we were fed up with them" and began to teach the Cambridge Pre-U instead.

From 2011, it will offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. But to do this, they need 10 more teachers, and opening a new day house gives them the money to take on more staff.

Witheridge hopes that in future the school will cater for more "boys and girls from underprivileged homes, the sort of pupil who wouldn't dream of coming to a school like this". He points at a painting of an old boy in full judicial regalia above the fireplace, a photograph of the Queen on the side table, and a portrait of former student William Thackeray.

Thackeray didn't exactly enjoy his time at Charterhouse, but that was in the days when it was ruled by fear. Those days are past. When Fletcherites opens next year, Witheridge is convinced there will be stiff competition for places.