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Fee-payers rush to fill assisted places gap

Private school rolls are on the rise, despite the disappearance of state-subsidised pupils. Biddy Passmore reports

INDEPENDENT schools that offered subsidised places to children from poorer families have more than made up for the pupils they lost when the scheme was abolished by Labour. But their intake is becoming more socially exclusive.

Schools that took part in the Assisted Places Scheme boosted their overall number of pupils last year, despite the loss of nearly 7,000 assisted pupils. They also managed to increase the number of new recruits by nearly 3 per cent, whereas the number had dropped in the previous year, according to figures released last week by the Independent Schools Information Service.

But the proportion of pupils taken from local primary schools has fallen as assisted-place holders have been mostly replaced by full fee-payers. In 1997-98, recruits from maintained schools made up more than one in three of their new entrants. Last year, it was just below 30 per cent.

Growth in the assisted-place schools is typical of a buoyant independent sector, with overall numbers up for the fifth year running and record spending on buildings and equipment of pound;770 per pupil.

Numbers rose by 0.8 per cent to 484,000 in the 1,280 schools belonging to ISIS, which account for about 80 per cent of pupils in the indeendent sector.

Continuing strong growth in the number of day pupils - now 86 per cent of the total - outweighed the continuing decline in boarding.

Occasional or "sleepover" boarding continues to boom as parents appreciate the convenience, while children appreciate the fun of after-school activities and one or more nights in the dorm with their friends.

Nearly 25,000 day pupils spent an average of more than five nights each in school during 1999, while there were fewer than 70,000 full boarders.

The sharp increases in nursery numbers of previous years seem to have stopped and rising numbers are now spread throughout the age range up to 15. Only in the sixth form are numbers down (by 2 per cent), where smaller intakes caused by the 1990s recession are still working their way through.

Fee rises continue to accelerate, averaging 6.3 per cent in 1999-2000 - as does the proportion of pupils receiving assistance with them. Schools now help more than one in five pupils with fees - the highest level yet recorded. Bursars predict that fees will rise by a further 5 to 7 per cent next year.

The number of new overseas pupils recruited mainly by boarding schools rose by nearly 10 per cent to just over 8,000, with a rise of nearly a third in the number from Hong Kong and 460 new pupils coming from mainland China.

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