Leading Article: Writing on the wall for boarding schools

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST sight, the decline in pupil numbers at independent schools reported on today's news pages is a vindication of government policy. It is evidence that parents, few of whom have any instinctive enthusiasm for private education per se, now recognise the success of Tory education reforms in the public sector. Better state schools make it less necessary for parents to spend horrifying sums on educating their children privately. Hence the fall in demand for private schooling.

But this is only a small part of the story. A more important reason for the continuing decline in the demand for private education is simply its price. Until the end of the Eighties, most bursars of independent schools assumed that parents would continue to educate their children privately no matter what the cost. Average fees might rise 30 per cent in three years; parents would simply tighten their belts, take fewer holidays, or sell their houses in France. Only as a last resort would they send their children to a comprehensive.

The recession of 1990, and the drop in middle-class disposable incomes it caused, has shattered that assumption. But more important than falling incomes, perhaps, was the unprecedented financial uncertainty that the recession brought to those in highly-paid jobs. Some parents who could afford to educate their children privately did not do so, for fear of the disruption that might result if they were unable to pay next year's fees.

Some of the drop in independent school rolls is the result of a separate trend: the decline of the English boarding school. Sending children away to be educated is clearly going out of fashion. English boarding schools may remain popular among foreigners and the diminishing number of senior British diplomats and soldiers stationed abroad; but for London families, the brutal adolescent rituals of boarding school have become an anachronism as well as an extravagance.

Private schools with an eye to the future should therefore see the current recession as a shot across their bows. Some will now wonder whether their building programmes during the Eighties were ill-judged. Others will concentrate on the most alarming statistic reported by the independent schools yesterday: the huge increase, to 27 per cent, in the proportion of pupils whose parents receive help with fees. Bursaries and other forms of discreet discounting may help smooth the cycle of the education market. But when one in four parents cannot afford the bills, the message is clear: private schooling has become too expensive.