Independent schools 'more popular than ever'

Posted on: 05 May 2015
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

As the 2015 ISC census is published, Chairman, Barnaby Lenon, takes a look at the numbers contributing to this success...

The 2015 Independent School Council census reveals that the number of pupils in our schools has risen to 517,000, the highest number since such records started in 1974. 27,000 of these are non-British pupils living abroad – most from China and Hong Kong – not so many oligarchs then. Given that the majority view in the media in the past five years has been that independent schools have priced themselves out of the market, we might ask – what is going on here?

More parents have found the money than expected. The average fee is £12,500 a year for a day school; this is the average, so half are less than that, well over half in less prosperous parts of the country.

The numbers in independent schools in the north of England have started to rise for the first time in years. Boarding school fees are more than double those of day, yet boarding numbers have also grown this year.

Independent schools have done well to keep fees increases low since 2008 in spite of rising costs. Fee increases this year averaged 3.5 per cent, the lowest since 1994.

Pressure of costs will continue next year with rising pension and national insurance contributions. But schools are fully aware of the pressures on hard working families who are often making great sacrifices to send their children to our schools and are working hard to keep fees down.

Independent schools are also making strenuous efforts to widen access to our schools. Over 41,000 pupils are on means-tested bursaries or fee discounts and there are another 130,000 on other forms of bursary or scholarship. That’s a total of over £800 million going toward fee cuts.

The average bursary is worth £8,227 per pupil per year and over 5,400 pupils pay no fees at all. This has helped to maintain numbers as well as broadening the social background of our pupils. Parents are attracted by the independence of our schools.

The recent trend has been to increasingly divert money from scholarships into means tested bursaries and many of our schools, such as Manchester Grammar School, City Of London School and Bolton School, to name but a handful, have recently launched big fundraising campaigns.

Bolton School, for example, currently has one in five children receiving bursaries and is striving to increase that, with the goal of helping even more local children, whatever their background. Our schools have also benefited from increased income from overseas franchise schools – 44 overseas campuses with 24,700 pupils and rising fast.

29 per cent of our day pupils are from an ethnic minority, most being the children of migrants who are using independent schools to maximise the chances of a good university place and a good career – the things they hoped for when they came to Britain.

51 per cent of our A-level entries were graded A or A* compared to 26 per cent nationally and our schools tend to offer the more traditional ‘hard’ subjects that Russell Group universities prefer. 92 per cent of our pupils move onto higher education.

Parents are also attracted by the independence of our schools, who are free to choose the best curriculum and qualifications to suit their pupils. Independent schools pioneered the iGCSE, IB, Pre-U and Extended Project Qualification and schools are also free to choose the best teachers who are specialists in their subjects.

But many parents would argue that the greatest value they get from the fee is the level of sport, music, drama, expeditions and other activities which give children skills and interests which may stay with them all their lives – long after much that had been learnt in the classroom had been forgotten.

This past year has seen further expansion of the number of independent-state school partnerships. 93 per cent of our schools are fully engaged and we are gathering further data about the scope and success of such projects.

Is this the golden era for independent schools described by David Turner in his recent book The Old Boys? Hard to say, but the ISC 2015 census shows clearly enough that the doom-mongers of the past few years have got it completely wrong.

First seen in The Telegraph.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.