Fee-paying schools prove surprisingly recession-proof

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The Independent Online

In spite of these tough economic times, interest in fee-paying schools shows no sign of slowing. A survey by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference this year revealed that its members had received a higher number of applications than in 2008. And now, it seems that open days – a bellwether for the health of the private education sector – are attracting growing numbers of parents and their offspring.

Roedean, the independent girls' school near Brighton, West Sussex, says that attendance at open days has gone up by 244 per cent in the past three years. The number of visitors to the school in February this year, including families on private tours, was up by 50 per cent on February 2008.

Stowe School in Buckinghamshire also says that interest is as strong as ever. "At the moment, things seem to be very buoyant – the open days are heavily oversubscribed," says the registrar, David Fletcher.

Parents tend to view prospective schools well in advance, and some schools, such as Charterhouse, are holding open days for entry in 2011, by which time, it is hoped, the economy will be faring better.

"Maybe parents are trying to see beyond what is happening at the moment," Fletcher says. "They have made provision during the good times. It's just a case of seeing how long the current situation will last."

Millfield, the independent school in Somerset, says demand for places is greater than last year – particularly at sixth-form level – and, in addition to its open days, the school is giving tours to around five families a day, including on weekends and holidays – a total of more than 1,000 a year.

"Despite the recession we are still getting a lot of enquiries and visits from prospective families," says Christopher Coates, tutor for admissions at Millfield. "We are still as busy as we were at this point last year. We are optimistic but we don't want to be complacent because the full effects of the recession may not yet have been felt."

In March last year, Millfield introduced a third annual open day to cope with the increased levels of interest, and 54 families attended. The same event in March 2009 pulled in 78 families. "We closed our books just over two weeks before the event," Coates says. "All those additional families requesting to attend the open day were invited to the May event instead."

Coates says that much of the current interest is from British families who are living overseas but plan to return to the UK to take advantage of lower house prices and the weak pound.

The school keeps its open days low-key – their aim is not to showcase the school, but to give an idea of a working school day. It's the typical fare of coffee with staff and students, a talk by the head and the head boy or girl, a tour of the school in groups led by prefects and, finally, lunch with the student guides and staff members.

By contrast, King Edward's school in Birmingham tries to have as much as possible going on – from rugby and water polo matches to drama practices. "What I say to parents is, 'This is us with our party frock on,'" says Nicole Phillips, admissions co-ordinator at King Edward's. "It's us showing what we can do."

The school has a policy of sending out individual invitations to parents who have expressed interest – perhaps by requesting a prospectus – which the school says has helped to sustain numbers at open days. "It reminds parents of the date and makes them feel we're interested, that we want them to come – which is true," Phillips says.

Her son is at King Edward's, and she says that attending the open day was a vital experience – and not just for the parents. "I'll always remember the screaming jelly baby experiment in the chemistry lab," she says. "It really gets the boys excited and thinking, 'Yes, I'd like to come to this school.'"

This "showcase" approach to open days is likely to heat up as the independent schools' Open Days show approaches. The event, which is being hosted by isbi schools at Newbury Racecourse, Berkshire in October, is a chance for schools to catch the eyes of would-be pupils and their parents, with artists, scientists, sports teams and CCF corps in attendance. "We will be having some really interesting events, teams and pupils doing their bit at the show," says Richard Essberger, managing director of isbi schools.

"The moment I mention to schools that we want to showcase their talent, they start bubbling over with enthusiasm, 'Well, that will be our jazz band, then, or maybe the heavy metal group might be better,'" Essberger says.

Open days: Stowe, 25 April (sixth form) and 16 May (13-plus); Roedean, 4 May; Millfield, 9 May; King Edward's School, Birmingham, 30 June