Student numbers in Britain's leading independent schools have fallen this year, suggesting that the sector is struggling to bounce back after the economic downturn.
Schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which responded to surveys of student numbers in January 2012 and January 2013 for the ISC's annual census, reported that numbers on their rolls had fallen by 1,500. The drop is gloomy news for the sector, which last year celebrated a 0.1 per cent rise in student numbers, prompting speculation that it had weathered the economic storm relatively well.
The figures come after another year of high-profile mergers and closures of independent schools, especially in the North of England. Several top institutions also announced that they would stop charging fees and go state-funded, including Liverpool College and the King's School Tynemouth.
Although the overall drop in numbers is relatively small at 0.3 per cent, this masks large regional disparities: while student numbers rose by 1.1 per cent in Greater London, they fell by 0.6 per cent in other parts of the UK. The worst-hit areas were the East Midlands, with 1.9 per cent fewer students, and Wales, where day-pupil numbers fell by 2.7 per cent.
Independent schools' problems have been compounded by reductions in the Continuity of Education Allowance, which helps armed forces families to pay for boarding education. In the past two years, the number of children of military personnel starting at a new boarding school has fallen by more than 50 per cent, the ISC report said.
The census also revealed that the overall fall in numbers was against a backdrop of yet more fee rises, although the ISC stressed that the 3.9 per cent rise was the lowest for nearly 20 years.
Schools are relying on offering increasing numbers of means-tested bursaries to fill places, the census showed. The bursaries offered have grown by #163;19 million to #163;620 million, with schools opening branches abroad to boost their finances.
Last year, experts pointed out that it was becoming increasingly easy to gain a place in all but the most prestigious Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and Girls' Schools Association private schools, because fewer parents can afford the fees.
Tim Baines, an accountant at Crowe Clark Whitehill and author of the Independent Schools' Benchmarking Survey, which will be published next month, said: "The last fall we saw in 2010-11 was hitting particular types of schools, such as girls' day schools and schools in the North.
"But this latest fall seems to be affecting a much wider range of schools in a wider spread of regions."
Mr Baines said he was concerned that it was going to be harder for schools for the "next few years", although falls in pupil numbers were still "pretty modest".
Despite the fall in like-for-like numbers, ISC chairman Barnaby Lenon was keen to see the results in a positive light. Overall numbers in ISC schools are actually up by 129 students, he said, because of schools of different sizes leaving and joining the umbrella organisation.
"I am delighted that the numbers at independent schools have held up so well this year, despite the recession," Mr Lenon said. "The fantastic GCSE, A-level, (Cambridge) Pre-U and IB (International Baccalaureate) results achieved by our pupils in 2012, combined with their medal success at the London Olympics, illustrate the reasons so many parents are keen for their children to come to our schools."
The census also showed how independent schools have responded to government calls for the private sector to make a bigger contribution to improving state schools: 388 independent schools open up lessons and education events to state school students, 20 sponsor academies and 14 co-sponsor academies.
508,601 - Total number of students at all 1,223 ISC schools.
0.3% - Fall in student numbers between January 2012 and January 2013.
#163;620m - Money dedicated to means-tested bursaries.
1.1% - Greatest rise in student numbers (Greater London).
-2.7% - Drop in day-pupil numbers in Wales.