It's the first Tuesday in January as mothers and fathers flock by to a suburban school that looks ordinary, at least from the outside. Inside their nervous 10 and 11 year old sons will be sitting entrance tests in maths, English composition and reasoning. Only around one in four will be successful, such is the demand for places next September at Hampton School, the £14,000 a year boys' senior school in south-west London.
Interest in private education has remained strong despite the recession. True, some small schools around the country have closed or merged and bursars are under increased pressure to balance the books as parents seek bursaries or extra time to pay the termly instalments. Boarding schools that charge up to £30,000 a year are losing some pupils to day schools, but the downturn in the overall seven per cent of pupils educated privately is proving to be less severe than was predicted at the height of the banking crisis.
And whereas the food retail industry has seen consumers move to cheaper supermarkets, the flight in private education appears to be upwards, towards the schools with the best record for academic success and university entry.
To cope with the flood of applications Hampton School added an extra form in both 2009 and 2010. "The reason for the huge take-up of places in the dark, gloomy days of the recession was difficult to fathom, but I came to the view that the economic circumstances focused parents' minds on what was really important to them," says headmaster Barry Martin.
"Things were tight and the world was getting more competitive. The best way to prepare your children is to give them the best education you can and I think for many people education simply went even higher up the agenda."
At Yarm School in Stockton-on-Tees headteacher David Dunn has also been amazed by the determination of parents to find the money for the fees of between £4,000 and £10,000 a year at the day school for 3-18 year olds. "The north-east is not an affluent area like the Surrey commuter belt, but we have people who value traditional standards and who make amazing sacrifices to send their children here," he said.
"The school is full and we have embarked on a £20 million pound redevelopment that includes an enormous riverside performing arts centre, which will be shared with the community," he says. "We are seeing more and more aspirational, pragmatic children who know they have to work hard and achieve good qualifications if they are going to get a good job in the current climate."
Will it last? Schools must not become complacent, says Dick Davison, head of strategy at mtmconsulting, the educational business consultancy. The worst effects of the last recession in the 1990s were not felt until after the recession was over. And whereas the 1990s recession followed years of strong and consistent growth in pupil numbers, the current downturn follows five years of stagnant numbers, he says.
School fees now are a much bigger burden on the family purse after several years of above-inflation increases. The Good Schools Guide in its 25th edition (published today) says the annual cost of sending a child to a senior independent boarding school has soared from around £6,000 to £30,000 since its first edition in 1986. At the top end Eton College charges £29,862 for boarding and Malvern College has broken through the £30,000 barrier.
But not all schools are so expensive. According to 2010 Census published by the Independent Schools Council, the average boarding fee last year was £24,000. Boarding at Ashville College, the Methodist School in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, for example, costs between £5,430 and £10,260 a year and Howell's School in Denbigh, North Wales, charges between £11,100 and £18,900.
There has been a steep decline in the number of boarders below the age of 11, bucked by a few schools such as The Dragon in Oxford, which is popular with professional London parents. The school has just built a new boarding house to accommodate 22 extra girl boarders.
For parents who want boarding there are 36 state boarding schools, which are cheaper and sought after because parents pay only for the boarding element, usually less that £10,000 a year. Several come near the top of league tables for GCSE and A-level results.
But the vast majority of pupils live at home and attend day schools: 444,030 compared with 67,856 boarders. Fees at schools without boarding average £10,095 a year, according to the Census. Boarding schools that take day pupils average £13,998 a year, reflecting their usually more luxurious facilities and wider extra-curricular activities.
To discount the fees, schools usually offer both bursaries based on parental income and scholarships for pupils who are gifted academically or in areas such as sport or music. In 2009/10 nearly a third of pupils at schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council received help with the fees, with 80 per cent coming from the schools and the rest from other charities, local authorities or the Ministry of Defence, which subsidises the education of Forces children. Choir schools provide another cut-price alternative for the parents of children who sing well. Some chorister places are free and others heavily subsidised by cathedral and chapel foundations.
With fees rising beyond the rate of inflation, it is increasingly common to find parents diving in and out of the independent sector, says Janette Wallis of The Good Schools Guide. "They may choose a prep school to prepare their children for competitive entry to a state grammar school or use a state primary and put their money into the GCSE years," she said. "If there is a good sixth-form college nearby, they may switch to the state sector at that point."
Under the former Labour Government the leading universities were under pressure to recruit more students from state schools and deprived areas. However, the Coalition Government has abolished Aim Higher, the scheme to persuade more children from deprived backgrounds and poor performing state schools to go to university. However, it is likely to make measures to improve the social spread of undergraduates one of the conditions universities will have to meet before increasing tuition fees beyond the new £6,000 threshold from 2012.
Despite the political pressure, independent schools have continued to dominate entry to the leading Russell Group universities and provide a lion's share of the candidates in shortage subjects, such as languages and physics. Research by the Independent Schools Council showed independent school candidates, who make up 18 per cent of sixth formers, gained 35 per cent of the physics A-level A grades in 2008. Modern foreign language entries have held up and the schools secured 42 per cent of A grades for A-level French and 46 per cent in German.
Figures published by CILT, the national centre for languages, last week showed privately educated pupils were twice as likely to carry on studying languages after the age of 14 than those at comprehensive schools.
According to the Sutton Trust, the education charity, 28 of the 30 schools that get the highest number of students into Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities are independent. Broadening to the top 100 for admission to the top universities, 83 are independent, 16 grammar and one comprehensive.
So how do they do it and what do parents get for the eye-watering sums of up to £200,000 that it costs to educate children privately from four to 18?
Smaller class sizes is a distinctive factor with the average being 11 pupils per teacher compared with 17 in state schools. Most state primaries and secondaries have around 30 in a class whereas over 20 is rare in most private schools, and GCSE classes can be as low as 10 to 15.
These small teaching groups are a significant factor in academic success according to Sue Meadows, a former comprehensive school teacher who is now head of the English and maths faculty at Fulneck School in Pudsey, Leeds.
"According to our most recent inspection report, pupils reach exceptional levels of achievement in relation to their abilities. Although this is clearly testament to the teaching we offer, I would argue that class size plays a part, too. In a small class, learning can be personalised to the needs of every single child.
"Having previously worked as a head of English in the state sector, I would certainly concede that the marking workload can feel overwhelming with a GCSE class of 37 pupils, in comparison to between 12 and 18 in the independent sector," she says.
The greater range of qualifications available in independent schools also provides a chance for pupils to demonstrate their potential. Many senior schools now put pupils in for the tougher IGCSE in some subjects. The International Baccalaureate (see page 6), which provides a wider, less subject-specialised sixth form experience is also being offered by an increasing number of schools, such as Rydal Penrhos in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, where it's run alongside traditional A-levels. "The International Baccalaureate fits the modern world and gives students access to the top universities worldwide because of its excellent international reputation," says Debbie McCluskey, the school's marketing manager.
Children who are independently educated benefit from better facilities and a broad range of extra curricular activities to develop their interests. Crucially, though parents don't like to admit it, they are also buying their children out of being taught alongside the disruptive pupils who don't want to learn found in many state-school classes. Private school teachers find it easier to keep discipline because they have the ultimate sanction of expulsion or, more commonly, a request that parents remove their badly behaved children - who then usually end up in state schools.
Small classes, high-quality teaching and well-motivated, aspirational children explain part of the success of UK independent education, but it is not the whole story, says Bernard Trafford, the headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. "The parent has made a significant financial investment and, in return, expectations are great," he says. "The expectation is in itself an enormous motivation not only to the parent but also the child who signs up to the quest for success and the school that signs up in return."