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One in five pupils' fees subsidised

Independent schools buck the predicted trend of smaller intakes as the phasing out of assisted places starts to bite. Biddy Passmore reports

INDEPENDENT schools are spending record amounts on subsidising needy pupils and on a building bonanza, according to figures published today.

Overall, the proportion of pupils receiving help with their fees has risen to nearly one in fiveJ- the highest ever. This partly compensates for the drop in the number of state-funded pupils on the now-abolished Assisted Places Scheme.

Independent schools have also been spending record amounts on new buildings. Last year, the 1,300 schools belonging to the Independent Schools Information Service spent pound;315 million on buildings and equipment, an average of pound;658 per pupil compared with pound;596 in 1997. Fees have risen by 5.7 per cent, slightly more than last year.

The ISIS annual census shows a net rise of nearly 3,400 pupils, equivalent to 0.7 per cent over last year. It is especially remarkable as nearly 7,800 pupils were lost with the end of assisted place.

Even in schools with assisted places, numbers held up better than might have been expected. The total intake to these schools fell by 3,600, less than half the number of assisted places lost as one full cohort left and was, for the first time, not replaced.

David Woodhead, national ISIS director, said: "The schools are proving resilient in the face of this major change."

Nearly 4,500 more pupils in these schools are being given financial help. Those with a high percentage of assisted-place holders have launched appeals to boost their bursary funds. Some, such as Batley grammar school in North Yorkshire, are thinking of opening a junior department to maintain overall numbers.

The ISIS census found the decline in boarding numbers had accelerated to 4.3 per cent since last year despite a campaign by the Boarding Education Alliance.

Boarding now accounts for only 15 per cent of the total of 480,000 pupils in ISIS schools. (ISIS schools account for 80 per cent of pupils in the independent sector.) Day pupil numbers are still growing strongly: up by 1.7 per cent overall and by 2.3 per cent for girls. Growth is strongest at nursery level (up 5.2 per cent) and primary (up 2.6 per cent). Only at the secondary stage have numbers dropped - slightly among 11 to 15-year-olds and by 2.7 per cent in the sixth form as smaller intakes caused by the recession of the early 1990s work their way through.

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