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Eton head: Families earning £80,000 are 'squeezed out' of boarding schools

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Private boarding schools should consider offering fee assistance to families earning £80,000 per year, the headmaster of Eton has said.

Tony Little argued that middle-income families were being “squeezed out” of boarding school education because of rising fees, adding that “something imaginative” should be done to make sure these families were not priced out.

He said GPs, senior policemen and airline pilots had traditionally sent their children to boarding school but, in many cases, could no longer afford to do so.

Speaking at the Boarding Schools Association’s annual conference in London today, Mr Little said average boarding school fees had risen at four times the rate of other goods and services between 1990 and 2013.

This had “removed whole groups of families who might otherwise see boarding education as right for their sons and daughters,” he said. For families with two or more children, he added, boarding school fees had “become a very tall order”.

Mr Little attributed the cost increases to a “lethal cocktail” of rising costs, such as the need to pay for high-quality facilities, the cost of paying teachers at competitive rates and what he described as “constant waves of expensive bureaucracy”.

“The more one is involved in the difficult business of allocating bursary money, the trickier it is to define need,” he said.

“It seems odd to consider offering financial support to the squeezed middle on combined salaries of say £60,000 or £80,000, maybe more.

“But unless something imaginative is done, the sons and daughters of the traditional professions who have supported boarding schools for generations will be left behind and will join those who resent or oppose the institutions that developed them.”

He said there was a risk that boarding schools would become “polarised” by being accessible only to the very rich, who could pay the full fees, and the very poor who receives bursaries.

During his speech, Mr Little also said boarding schools must acknowledge that the sector was in the past guilty of “shocking betrayals of trust” and a “remarkable lack of accountability”.

He said that although many adults speak warmly of their boarding school days in the 1960s and 1970s, there were also “casualties”, adding he had met individuals who were scarred by their experiences.

“The fallout of Jimmy Savile and the Yewtree inquiry has revealed shocking betrayals of trust in a variety of contexts, including boarding schools,” he said.

“In some ways more revealing has been how pervasive was the culture of the '70s and '80s that ignored threats to young people.”

He said new legislation and regulations on child protection had been a “godsend” to schools because “issues that were once hidden in the half-light are now subject to the full glare of the spotlight”.

Mr Little said the number of pupils educated at boarding schools had fallen by 40 per cent in the past two decades, adding: “Boarding, which was once the defining characteristic of the great British liberal tradition of a public school, comprises only 13 per cent of pupils from [Independent Schools Council] schools, so for a variety of reasons parents are turning their faces away from boarding schools.”

Mr Little will step down this summer as headmaster of the world-famous Eton boys’ school, which counts David Cameron, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry among its former pupils, after 13 years in the post.

He is due to become chief education officer of the Gems Education network of schools in Europe, the US and Africa.

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