Independents lower selection criteria as they feel the pinch

Some offer places to less able pupils, overturning tradition of academic exclusivity

Several independent schools have been forced to lower their entry standards in order to attract pupils during the recesssion.

Others are sending handwritten letters to individual Year 6 pupils to whom they are offering places in a bid to appeal to the children directly.

The TES has learnt from sector sources that several schools in London and the Midlands with a long-standing tradition of academic selection and high achievement, have made offers to less able pupils this year.

But Jill Berry, president of the Girls' Schools Association, insists that such measures are rare and potentially counterproductive.

"It's not in anyone's best interests for children to be accepted by a school where they would be unhappy," she said. "If a school isn't the right place for certain children, the economic situation doesn't change that. It's about education, not just money."

The heads of several high-profile schools have sent handwritten letters to 11-year-olds, accompanying the offer of a place. In them, they try to convince parents and pupils of the benefits of attending their school. Other schools are emphasising the uniqueness and value of each child during admissions interviews.

In north London, the Pounds 4,730-a-term Highgate School is among those to have sent a letter to parents. In 2007, 91 per cent of Highgate A-level entries were awarded an A or B grade while 81 per cent of GCSE candidates achieved an A* or A.

North London Collegiate School in Middlesex sent out a similar letter. In 2008, 92 per cent of pupils at the Pounds 3,975-a-term girls' school achieved an A in their A-levels. Ninety-seven per cent scored an A* or A grade in their GCSEs, and the school regularly appears in the top five of national league tables.

But Rowan Kitt, marketing manager for the school, says the letters were simply a marketing device.

"The girls themselves are more involved in the decision-making process now (in taking up places)," he said. "So it was about engaging with them, being warm and making them feel welcome. We're vastly oversubscribed, so it wasn't financially driven."

And Jill Berry insists that if the economic downturn is helping independent schools to improve their marketing, this is a good thing.

"If it makes us communicate more clearly the advantages of a particular sector, a particular type of school or a particular school; it's positive," she said.

At her own school, Dame Alice Harpur in Bedfordshire, Mrs Berry sends out letters praising successful candidates.

"I want girls to get the sense that the school wants them," she said. "It's not a cynical business ploy. It's about wanting the right pupils for your school."

Meanwhile, David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, said that there had been no drop in the number of applications to independent secondaries although he conceded that the effects of a recession often take a year or two to feed through.

"Those schools that are hard to get into would appear just as hard to get into at the moment," he said.

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