Most parents would keep their children in state education even if they could afford to go private, according to a TES poll.
But a significant minority (38 per cent) would send them to a private school if they had the money. They cite smaller classes, higher academic standards and better teaching as the key reasons.
The findings clearly indicate the potential for growth of the independent sector and provide ammunition for Blairites who want greater choice and diversity in the state sector.
Aspirations for a private education were particularly strong among professionals living in poor areas - almost half would go private if they had the money - suggesting the Government is right to concentrate on improving inner-city schools.
The TES poll of more than 700 parents in England and Wales comes as private education companies attempt to lure parents away from the state sector with lower-cost independent schools. Global Education Management Systems (GEMS), which is establishing a network of independent schools charging fees of pound;5,000 a year, is leading the drive.
It has already acquired and reopened three private schools in England and is in advanced negotiations to take over six further schools this year. The TES survey suggests that although most parents were opposed to the idea of private education, numbers of pupils in independent schools would increase significantly if fees were lower.
The proportion of parents in England who said they were willing to switch their children to the private sector was linked closely to the cost: 37 per cent said they would if the fees were pound;400 a year; 30 per cent for pound;800; 16 per cent for pound;2,000; 6 per cent for pound;4,000; and 4 per cent for pound;5,000.
This suggests that if GEMS was able to provide enough pound;5,000-a-year schools to meet demand, they could increase the numbers of children in independent education by a half.
The average cost of a place in a private school is pound;6,525 a year. At Eton fees top pound;21,000.
The TES poll shows that families would also be willing to contribute more money towards state schools.
Parents are under increasing pressure from state schools to pay for clubs and activities, while benefits such as free travel and grants for uniforms are being eroded.
But almost half (46 per cent) of the parents polled said they were willing to pay at least pound;5 every week to their child's state school to help pay for extra facilities or teachers. The number of parents who said they would contribute was halved when pound;10 a week was proposed.
The TES revealed earlier this year that parents were propping up state schools by contributing more than pound;200 million a year towards basics.
Previous polls by the Independent Schools Council have suggested that a slim majority of families would choose a private school if they could afford it.
Dick Davison, joint director of the ISC information service, said that although the TES poll showed less interest among parents in private education than previous surveys, it was clear there was great potential for lower-cost independent schools to expand.
Parents' attitudes to many other matters seem to be broadly similar to those found by a TES poll four years ago. The same small proportion (4 per cent) were dissatisfied with their children's schools and they were equally split over academic selection for 11-year-olds.
Peter Wilby 17
The TES poll, conducted by FDS International, was based on phone interviews with a representative sample of 736 parents of children aged five to 16 in England and Wales. FDS International conducted the interviews in March