Independent schools fear the hike in university tuition fees will trigger a flight from their sixth-forms as parents try to reduce the cost of education, the chairman of a body representing an elite group of private schools has warned.
David Levin, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), spoke out as the Government announced plans to allow universities to almost triple the flat rate of tuition to #163;9,000 a year by 2012.
Every year thousands of pupils join private schools in the sixth-form in a bid to increase their chances of getting top A-level grades. If they remain in the maintained sector, it could have significant ramifications for sixth-form provision in some areas.
Mr Levin said heads of fee- charging schools in areas with highly developed state sixth-form college systems could find parents opt for the state sector as a way of saving cash ahead of the expense of university.
Mr Levin, who is head of the high-achieving City of London School, said: "The increase in tuition fees could cause a lot of parents to review their financial planning, and sixth-form education could be a casualty.
"Good state sixth-form colleges could become very attractive to fee-paying parents because they are going to have to budget an extra #163;18,000 minimum that wasn't there before.
"Parents who don't want their children to start their working life with any kind of debt will be thinking like this."
His view was echoed by Hilary Moriarty, director of the Boarding Schools' Association, who said the university tuition fee rise would cause worry for some heads.
"Around a third of boarders are sixth-form students, and boarding is the most expensive form of education you can buy," she said.
But she added that parents less worried about their child's future debt would still see private sixth-form as a good investment.
HEADS URGED TO 'SHOUT OUT LOUD'
Heads in the private sector have spoken out against the plans to raise tuition fees, claiming higher education is a "right".
David Derbyshire, head of Denstone College - a 577-pupil boarding school in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire - told The TES:
"We have a duty of care to shout out loud that these children will be burdened with diabolical amounts of debt. Why aren't we shouting about this more?
"Are we scared of the Russell Group universities?"
"The opposition has been feeble," he added. "We have a duty of care to fight for our children over the horrors of lifelong debt."