The pros and cons of a private education

Interest in independent schools has not waned – despite huge fee increases and the recession, says Liz Lightfoot

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."

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Sport
Moeen Ali wearing the 'Save Gaza' and 'Free Palestine' wristbands on his left arm
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Battle of the Five Armies trailer released
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Extras
indybest
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Nursery Nurse

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a better wo...

Nursery Assistant and Nursery Nurse

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: Creche Worker Leeds Nursery Nurse ...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teacher required with Early Years...

Nursery Nurse

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: Nursery Nurse Level 3 or above Ear...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on