The number of pupils going to Britain's independent schools is rising again as more parents can afford the fees to educate their children privately, according to new figures.
The Independent Schools Council, which represents the majority of independent schools in the UK, has boasted that the number of pupils at its schools was now at the highest level it has been since records began to be taken in 1974 – up from 511,928 last year to 517,113.
Whilst part of this may be due to increased membership of the ISC, a like-on-like comparison of the 1, 234 schools who completed the census in both 2014 and 2015 also shows an increase – up from 508, 877 to 512, 048.
The rise is also partly due to an increase in the the number of international students – which has seen a small but steady growth over the past 30 years from 4.4 per cent of pupils to 5.3 per cent (27,211).
In the main, though, experts were agreed to boost was down to parents feeling they could afford to go private and worries about the state sector – with almost daily warnings of a crisis in teacher recruitment and draconian cuts to the sector in the next Parliament.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "I think if numbers are going up it is that more people are finding they are going to be able to pay again."
Overall pupil numbers did suffer during the first three years of the recession and only started rising again for the first time since 2009 last year.
However, Professor Smithers added: "It is also about concerns about the state sector which I'm afraid our politicians have left in a little bit of a mess – in the sense that the best state schools are as good as the independent schools but the worst are appalling.
"The trouble is the best state schools are greatly oversubscribed so parents can't be confident of getting into the schools they want their sons and daughters to attend. They do feel they have an element of control if they are finding the fees."
Barnaby Lenon, former head of Harrow school and now chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said: "It is remarkable that although we are only at the start of an economic recovery the number of pupils at UK independent schools is at the highest level since records began in 1974."
One of the interesting features of this year's census is that it shows that parents are dipping into the independent sector for crucial stages of their children's education – rather than buying the whole package from prep school to A-levels.
The figures show, for instance, that – whereas seven per cent of the entire pupil population attend independent schools – when it comes to sixth-formers the figures rise to 14 per cent.
"It is no surprise that parents are chosing (our) schools for the crucial sixth-form. ISC pupils have an outstanding track record at A-level – 51 per cent of entries achieving an A* or A grade," said Julie Robinson, ISC general secretary.
While the feeling outside the independent sector is that any growth is due to an easier economic climate, the ISC is at pains to point out that almost one in three of its pupils now receive some sort of assistance with fees in terms of bursaries or scholarships – 5,406 pupils receive their education at an independent school for free. Figures show the amount of aid given to pupils has gone up £60 million to £836 million this year – possibly as a result of pressure on the independent sector to justify its charitable status.
The census also shows a rise in the number of pupils taking boarding school places – up one per cent to just over 70,000. It also shows that fees have had the smallest rise since 1994 at 3.5 per cent, albeit that the figure is still much higher than inflation.
Case Study: Brighton College
Parents, it seems, are flocking to the independent sector to secure a private sixth-form education for the children.
Figures show that 14 per cent of the post-16 school population now go to independent schools – double the percentage for the sector as a whole.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Brighton College – which has figured as the country's top performing co-educational independent school several times in the past few years.
Its figures show a 16.2 per cent rise in sixth-form applications. Across all age groups, the rise for the school is 11.3 per cent.
"In times of economic uncertainty with young people facing a tougher jobs market than ever, parents are responding by investing money in their children's secondary education in order to make sure that they get the top grades that leading universities now demand," said the college's headmaster Richard Cairns.
Numbers at Brighton College have risen by 34 per cent since the start of the recession in 2008.
Mr Cairns added that independent school pupils were "twice as likely" to study the academic subjects that the country's most selective universities demand. "Little wonder, therefore, that Russell Group universities (amongst the most selective in the country) are recruiting record numbers of independently educated pupils," he added.
Case Study: Wales
Think of independent schools - and images of Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Winchester (London and the South-East) come to mind.
Not this time, though, with the rise in private school numbers spread out more around the country.
Wales, for instance, has seen its first rise since 2008 with numbers going up by 4.7 per cent to 7,756 pupils.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Kings Monkton school in the heart of Cardiff, a school for two to 16-year-olds which has seen the number of 11-year-olds applying for a place double in the past year. It had 33 applications for its 15 scholarships.
"Parents are driven to our small class sizes and a flexiblie curriculum that can meet their children's needs. Over 90 per cent of parents that visit the school then want a place for their child."
Some, he added, were prepared to cut down on holidays to pay for a place for their child.
Dr Adam England, director of the Welsh Independent Schools Council, added that firms like Sony, Pinewood and Ford were bringing new employment opportunities to the principality and boosting the local economy.
"We're seeing more pupils coming into independent schools and more demand for places at our schools," he added.
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